Researchers Have Discovered an Exciting New Way to Identify the Best Treatments for Autoimmune Diseases

Some autoimmune diseases are notoriously difficult to treat, but new medications may be on the horizon as a result of a groundbreaking study out of Australia.

woman with arthritis grabbing wrist
Photo: Delmaine Donson / Getty Images

When you have an autoimmune disease your immune system attacks cells in your body. There are several types of autoimmune diseases that can impact your health, including rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis. Although researchers are typically able to diagnose these diseases pretty easily, identifying the best individual treatments is still a challenge.

However, there's new hope for people who suffer from an autoimmune disease. In a new study, scientists out of Garvan Institute of Medical Research in Darlinghurst, Australia, report that using people's individual immune cell fingerprints can pinpoint the exact treatment for their autoimmune afflictions.

"We analysed the genomic profile of over one million cells from 1,000 people to identify a fingerprint linking genetic markers to diseases, such as multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, type 1 diabetes, spondylitis, inflammatory bowel disease, and Crohn's disease," said Professor Joseph Powell, joint lead author at the Garvan Institute of Medical Research. "We were able to do this using single cell sequencing, a new technology that allows us to detect subtle changes in individual cells."

These findings, the largest to date on the topic, are helpful to give people specific treatments for their needs, as well as help scientists develop new medications for autoimmune diseases. Historically, researchers have seen a disparity in how some treatments work well for some patients and not for others. "Some autoimmune diseases can be notoriously difficult to treat," said Professor Powell. "'Because of our immune system's complexity, and how vastly it varies between individuals, we don't currently have a good understanding of why a treatment works well in some people but not in others."

Overall, the team found the connection between people's specific genes and types of immune cells linked to a person's autoimmune disease, such as multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, type 1 diabetes, and Crohn's disease. This means that someone's individual genetic makeup could be used as a source to find out what's needed to care for their immune system.

"Most rare genetic diseases are like a major car accident in the body—they are generally easy to identify and locate where they occur in the genome. But immune diseases are often more like traffic congestion, where genetic changes that hold up traffic are harder to specifically pinpoint. This study has helped us identify the trouble spots," said Professor Alex Hewitt, joint lead author and clinician-researcher at the University Of Tasmania's Menzies Institute for Medical Research. "The greatest insight from this work will be identification of therapeutic targets and defining sub-populations of immune disease, which can then refine clinical trials to assess drug effectiveness."

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