“Inverse vaccine” shows potential to treat multiple sclerosis and other autoimmune diseases

09/19/2023 - 03:05

A new type of vaccine developed by researchers at the University of Chicago’s Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering (PME) has shown in the lab setting that it can completely reverse autoimmune diseases like multiple sclerosis and type 1 diabetes — all without shutting down the rest of the immune system.

A typical vaccine teaches the human immune system to recognize a virus or bacteria as an enemy that should be attacked. The new “inverse vaccine” does just the opposite: it removes the immune system’s memory of one molecule. While such immune memory erasure would be unwanted for infectious diseases, it can stop autoimmune reactions like those seen in multiple sclerosis, type I diabetes, or rheumatoid arthritis, in which the immune system attacks a person’s healthy tissues.

The inverse vaccine, described in Nature Biomedical Engineering, takes advantage of how the liver naturally marks molecules from broken-down cells with “do not attack” flags to prevent autoimmune reactions to cells that die by natural processes. PME researchers coupled an antigen — a molecule being attacked by the immune system— with a molecule resembling a fragment of an aged cell that the liver would recognize as friend, rather than foe. The team showed how the vaccine could successfully stop the autoimmune reaction associated with a multiple-sclerosis-like disease.