New analytical method exposes the body’s policemen

Scientists are now able to pinpoint where in the body our T cells will attack. Among other things, this will have implications for research on cancer, sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis. A Lundbeck Foundation researcher is heading the project.

When our blood pumps around our body, it carries with it a number of vital cells. These are T cells, which are part of our immune system. They take on the role of policemen, biologically designed to detect other cells either infected with a virus or in the process of unhealthy development, for instance into cancer cells.

As soon as the T cells detect other cells of this type they attack them – and attempt to eliminate them. We could say that this makes them the body’s policemen, because they help us get rid of unwanted, disease-carrying cells. Medical professionals have therefore begun experimenting with T cells for treatment of disease, initially primarily certain types of cancer.

T cells are not solely one type of cell. There are many millions of different T cells, each one biologically programmed to recognise and attack one specific pathogenic deviation in other cells. And, for this reason alone, it is exceedingly difficult to gain an overview of the field.
What’s more, T cells have the – unintentional – tendency to react to certain biochemical properties found in healthy cells. Therefore, in addition to hunting down the sick cells, a T cell may get the idea to attack healthy cells – and this is a problem.

When this occurs, it triggers an autoimmune reaction. Basically, the body’s own immune system turns on the body. This is what happens in the case of diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis and psoriasis. It is therefore vital to know what else a given T cell could contrive to attack, besides the disease target that it is biologically programmed to combat.

Up to now, studies of this type have been extremely laborious and, in certain respects, impossible to conduct.
However, an international research team, headed by Sine Reker Hadrup, Professor and Lundbeck Foundation Fellow at the Department of Micro- and Nanotechnology at the Technical University of Denmark, has now found a solution.

“The solution is a test which tells us what a given T cell type will attack in addition to its natural target. Compared with the analytical methods we previously had at our disposal, this test is both quick and easy to work with. And the results we can achieve from this will have implications for research on cancer, sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis – both when it comes to making a diagnosis and to attempting new drug design,” says Professor Sine Reker Hadrup.

The scientific work was recently published in Nature Biotechnology, and, in addition to the Technical University of Denmark, participants included researchers from universities in the USA, Germany, the Netherlands and Argentina. The project was jointly funded by the Danish Council for Independent Research, the Lundbeck Foundation, the European Research Council and National Institutes of Health (NIH), USA.

Sine Reker Hadrup explains that the international research team needed a ‘model disease’ to develop the new analytical method:

“We used Merkel cell carcinoma, which is a rare but aggressive form of skin cancer and often affects people whose immune system is already weak, for instance after an organ transplant.”

The scientists received blood samples from a group of patients with Merkel cell carcinoma and they succeeded in developing the analytical method based on these samples. The method has been patented and the idea is to make it commercially available to pharmaceutical companies in the process of developing T cell therapies.

For further details please contact:
Henrik Larsen, science journalist at the Lundbeck Foundation, tel. +45 2118 6377 or hl@lundbeckfonden.com
Sine Reker Hadrup, Professor and Lundbeck Foundation Fellow, Department of Micro- and Nanotechnology, Technical University of Denmark, sirha@vet.dtu.dk

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