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Researchers Discover New Molecular Path to Fight Autoimmune Diseases

Multiple sclerosis, diabetes, and arthritis are among a variety of autoimmune diseases that are aggravated when one type of white blood cell, called the immune regulatory// cell, malfunctions. In humans, one cause of this malfunction is when a mutation in the FOXP3 gene disables the immune cells’ ability to function. In a new study published online this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine have discovered how to modify enzymes that act on the FOXP3 protein, in turn making the regulatory immune cells work better. These findings have important implications for treating autoimmune-related diseases.

“We have uncovered a mechanism by which drugs could be developed to stabilize immune regulatory cells in order to fight autoimmune diseases,” says senior author Mark Greene, MD, PhD, the John Eckman Professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine. “There’s been little understanding about how the FOXP3 protein actually works.” First author Bin Li, PhD, a research associate in the Greene lab has been working on elucidating this process since FOXP3’s discovery almost five years ago.

Li discovered that the FOXP3 protein works via a complex set of enzymes. One set of those enzymes are called histone deacetylases, or HDACs. These enzymes are linked to the FOXP3 protein in association with another set of enzymes called histone acetyl transferases that modify the FOXP3 proteins.

Li found that when the histone acetyl transferases are turned on, or when the histone deacetylases are turned off, the immune regulatory cells work better and longer. As a consequence of the action of the acetylating enzyme, the FOXP3 protein functions to turn off pathways that would lead to autoimmune diseases.

“I think this simple approach will revolutionize the treatment of autoimmune diseases in humans because we have a new set of enzymatic drug targets as opposed to t
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