Claire Bennett

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At the centre of it all, could understanding inflammation provide the silver bullet?

Across the globe, scientists are hard at work studying the processes behind the plethora of diseases causing harm. What if one process was at the centre of it all? Inflammation is associated with many, if not most, common diseases. It is triggered when the body’s defence system identifies a problem.

When it works effectively, it solves the problem and protects us. When it goes wrong, however, and becomes uncontrolled, inflammation can become the driver for disease throughout our bodies. It can drive the pathology and symptoms behind a diverse array of conditions like chronic liver disease, cancer, inflammatory bowel disease, cardiovascular disease, rheumatoid arthritis, sepsis and Alzheimer’s.

The IMB Centre for Inflammation and Disease Research (CIDR) is identifying both the mechanisms that cause inflammation and novel ways to turn this process off. Could deciphering inflammation provide the silver bullet that halts the progression of many common diseases? 

Director of CIDR Professor Matt Sweet said the innate immune system is our danger response system.

“The system detects when something is wrong, becoming activated in order to respond to the danger and repair the body. Once repaired, the system switches off and the body goes back to normal,” he said.

“But when the body is in a disease state the innate immune system can’t resolve the issue, because the triggers are constantly present, so it keeps responding. An ongoing response can be very harmful.”

Inflammation can occur in specific areas of the body, as is the case for arthritis, or it can be systemic, spreading throughout the body, in the case of sepsis. At its most extreme, as in the case of septic shock, systemic inflammation can be fatal.

Professor Sweet said inflammation is important to understand because it is very hard to name a disease where inflammation is not the underlying cause of symptoms.

“The symptoms of inflammation are heat, redness, swelling and pain, which most people can relate to. But inflammation is also a driver for disease in ways that people are less familiar with. For example, for cancer to take hold, a tumour has to grow and spread. Inflammation is a key driver of this process. Inflammation is similarly instrumental in other diseases.

“Being able to control inflammation could help treat multiple diseases. Learning what the components of this danger response system are, and how to turn down or turn off the system, is the focus of our research,” said Professor Sweet. 

His research team is collaborating with a team led by Professor Jenny Stow at IMB. Together they have uncovered a protein, the first of its kind, which is involved in triggering inflammatory responses. It binds directly to pathogen receptors on immune cells, providing incredible specificity to the inflammatory response that is initiated. This discovery has delivered an unprecedented opportunity to manipulate inflammation, for example by turning off the production of specific protein messengers called cytokines that contribute to destructive inflammatory processes in different diseases.

“This could lead to new treatments for patients with rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, and neurodegenerative disease,” said research team leader Professor Jenny Stow.

“We are currently characterizing exactly how this protein interacts with pathogen receptors. Such an understanding could enable us to target this protein as a new anti–inflammatory approach. This is important because for some inflammatory diseases there are no effective treatments, and for others, treatments are often only effective for a sub–set of patients.”

Understanding inflammation could be a game changer for the most common causes of death – including cancer and cardiovascular disease.

This discovery epitomises the innovative, fundamental science conducted at IMB, which is changing the future of disease treatment.