Rogue Immune Cells Found in Healthy People – ‘Switch On’ In Autoimmune Diseases

“If we figure out how the body turns the rogue cells off, that could lead to new treatment strategies for diseases like lupus and rheumatoid arthritis” – plus type 1 diabetes and scores of other auto-immune disorders afflicting 5 to 8 percent of the population.

A new study from the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation has discovered that lurking in the bodies even of healthy people are numerous rogue immune cells, the cause of rheumatoid arthritis and a host of other diseases.

The new findings could be key to developing new ways to prevent and treat autoimmune diseases, conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, lupus and type I (juvenile) diabetes that, in total, affect up to 24 million Americans.

Immune cells are the body’s police force, summoned to fight infections and viruses. In patients with autoimmune diseases, those immune cells go “rogue,” attacking not just foreign invaders but also the body’s own organs and systems.

In a study published in the Journal of Experimental Medicine,(1) OMRF scientists found that in healthy adults, rogue immune cells account for 2.5 percent of immune cells. But unlike in those suffering from autoimmune disease, the rogue cells in healthy individuals appear to be inactive.

“According to test we did, we found those immune cells were dormant, so they wouldn’t become active or dangerous,” said J. Andrew Duty, PhD, the lead author on the paper.

Co-author Darise Farris, PhD, said the find was significant because dormant rogue cells have never before been found in humans. “If we can locate them in lupus or rheumatoid arthritis patients, it could lead to clues about how people with healthy immune systems develop autoimmune diseases,” she said.

The dormant rogue immune cells don’t cause problems in healthy adults, but given the right stimulus in laboratory experiments, they become activated.

Duty said the next step would likely be to find out why those immune cells are dormant and if there’s a signal that turns them off to keep them from being dangerous.

“If we can discover how the body stops these cells from being turned on, it could offer new insight into how to prevent autoimmune disease,” said Duty. “And if we figure out how the body turns the rogue cells off, that could lead to new treatment strategies for diseases like lupus and rheumatoid arthritis.”

The study was funded by a grant from the National Institutes of Health.
1. “Functional anergy in a subpopulation of naive B cells from healthy humans that express autoreactive immunoglobulin receptors,” Journal of Experimental Medicine, Dec 22, 2008, by J Andrew Duty, Patrick C Wilson, et al.

Source: Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation Press Release, Jan 6, 2009. OMRF ( is an independent, nonprofit biomedical research institute dedicated to understanding and developing more effective treatments for human disease. Its scientists focus on such critical research areas as Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, lupus and cardiovascular disease.

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