Researchers at UC Irvine’s College of Medicine have refined a treatment that uses a toxin from sea anemones to treat autoimmune diseases. Autoimmunity triggers an immune response in which white blood cells attack the body’s own organs, resulting in diseases such as multiple sclerosis (MS), rheumatoid arthritis and Type-I diabetes.
“Autoimmune diseases affect millions of Americans, and any new therapies that can aid them will have great significance,” said George Chandy, a UCI School of Medicine researcher and head of the group developing the formula, in a 2006 press release. “What’s promising about this study is that we identified a protein target on the T-cells that promotes autoimmune activity and the compounds that can selectively block the target and shut down the destructive cells.”
Work on the treatment began when Chandy, Christine Beeton and several colleagues came across a report describing the improvement of symptoms in a patient with multiple sclerosis following a scorpion sting. The venom contained a peptide that blocks a certain potassium channel which is necessary for the self-attacking T-cells to survive. By blocking the channel, the treatment causes immobility in the T-cells. With no way of survival, the destructive T-cells die off, allowing other white blood cells to fight disease and infection.
After this initial discovery, the team began screening several other toxins and their modifications to find one with favorable characteristics in order to produce a marketable formula.
The treatment has been modified since its inception, as new compounds are tested and added to make the treatment more stable and have a longer half-life. The current formula is based on a toxin derived from sea anemones combined with many other modifications. The peptide has had multiple modifications thus far.
“It’s been a constant process of [refining] the formula,” said Victor Chi, a second-year graduate student working on the project.
Researchers on the project have also changed as Beeton left UCI for a position at the Baylor College of Medicine. The research is now led by Chandy. Chandy’s research team consists of post-doctoral staff member Srikant Rangaraju, M.D., as well as graduate students Adriana Garcia, who specializes in physiology, and Chi.
Chi went on to describe his enthusiasm for the project.
“It’s good to see something you have been working on help other people,” Chi said. “Most people don’t get to see the real-world value they make in their lifetime. … In what we are doing, there is a probability that we will see real-world results.”
Drug trials done on rats and human blood cells have proven to be successful. If the treatment is successful on human beings, it could result in a new class of drug treatments for a multitude of autoimmune diseases.
“My aunt has MS … and she recently had a baby,” Garcia said. “I really hope that this [formula] gets out into the market and [makes] an impact.”