A scientist at OMRF has discovered that certain disease-fighting cells in the body carry an extra, hidden protein. An editorial in the Journal of Experimental Medicine likened the discovery to unmasking a “wolf in sheep’s clothing,” and it could cast important light on the causes of lupus, rheumatoid arthritis and other diseases that affect an estimated 23 million Americans.
OMRF’s Patrick Wilson, Ph.D. in collaboration with Dr. Rafael Casellas of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., has detailed his research in a paper that appears in the current issue of the Journal of Experimental Medicine. The new findings run contrary to the scientific wisdom of the last half-century and could light the way to better understanding of so-called “autoimmune” diseases—conditions in which the body turns the weapons of its immune system against itself.
Among the key players in the body’s immune system are B cells—white blood cells that produce disease-fighting proteins known as antibodies. Since the 1950s, scientists have believed that each of the body’s B cells produces a single antibody, which, in turn, unleashes an attack against pathogens like disease and infection.
But a research team led by OMRF’s Wilson has discovered that as many as 10 percent of B cells secretly may carry more than one antibody. And that second, hidden antibody can be an autoantibody that does not fight disease or infection; instead, it attacks the body’s own tissues. Such “self attacks” are the hallmarks of autoimmune diseases such as lupus, rheumatoid arthritis and type I diabetes.
“The B cells with autoantibodies as well as normal antibodies are like Trojan horses,” said Wilson. “They appear innocent enough when they’re first left behind, but then they may begin attacking the body.”
In an accompanying editorial, Rockefeller University researcher Ruth Williams likens Wilson’s work to unmasking a “proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing.” Calling the autoantibodies “fluffy white villains,” Williams writes that they may be the triggers to autoimmune disease.
Wilson will return to the lab to study the production of rogue antibodies. “In a normal organism, the occurrence of these dangerous B cells may not be crucial,” Wilson said. “But if left uncontrolled they may result in a disease state.
“We want to continue our studies to gain greater understanding of this process. From that basic scientific knowledge, we may someday learn how these diseases are caused.”
Wilson received his Ph.D. from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas and completed his postdoctoral studies at the Rockefeller University in New York City. He has been a researcher in OMRF’s molecular immunogenetics research program since 2002.