World first blood test for autoimmune and inflammatory diseases
9 December 2005
Associate Professor Barbara Fazekas de St. Groth, together with colleagues at the Centre for Immunology and the University's Department of Paediatrics, has developed a new blood test to detect a rare but important subset of white cells, known as regulatory T cells, that protect against development of autoimmune and inflammatory diseases such as type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.
Associate Professor Fazekas showed that patients with Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis have only half the number of these cells, compared with controls. The research findings, which were announced at the Australasian Society for Immunology Annual Scientific Meeting in Melbourne yesterday, will open the way to a better understanding of why these diseases are increasing in Australia and the rest of the western world.
Currently it is believed that the hygienic living conditions in the west have paradoxically allowed the immune system, which should be focussed on responding to viruses, bacteria and parasites, to turn inward and attack the body itself. Regulatory T cells are believed to prevent such inward-looking responses.
By studying how regulatory T cells respond to different living conditions, future research holds the promise of new measures to prevent autoimmune and inflammatory diseases.
In the meantime, epidemiological studies from many laboratories world-wide have indicated that the first 6-12 months of life are crucial in educating the immune system to function normally. Frequent contact with other babies and small children, which in Australia is often achieved by attendance at child-care centres, has a clear protective effect. It is believed that such close contact spreads microbes within the population of children and mimics the exposure to microorganisms that the immune system would have previously experienced during human evolution.