Research led by University of Calgary immunologist Dr. Pere Santamaria has the potential to revolutionize treatment for people with type 1 diabetes and other autoimmune diseases – by turning their dysfunctional immune systems into healthy, protective allies.
Dr. Santamaria is the Julia McFarlane Chair in Diabetes Research Chair (co-funded by Diabetes Canada and the university) and a professor with the Department of Microbiology, Immunology & Infectious Diseases.
For many years his research focused on unlocking the complex process by which the immune system turns on itself to cause autoimmune diseases, ranging from type 1 diabetes, to multiple sclerosis, lupus and rheumatoid arthritis. His exploration led to an unexpected discovery, and the development of a novel class of powerful drugs.
“The next phase is to test how this new medicine will work in people – initially, individuals with type 1 diabetes,” he says. ”In animal models, it has been shown to change the disease process, so that the immune system no longer attacks the affected organ, which is the pancreas in type 1 diabetes. This leaves the patient without the ability to produce insulin. ”
As Dr. Santamaria researched how the various types of white blood cells infiltrate the pancreas in type 1 diabetes, he used “nano” particles as an imaging tool. A nano particle, he explains, is thousands of times smaller than a typical white blood cell, and these types of minute materials are increasingly used in medical research and treatment development.
“We discovered that these compounds had therapeutic properties,” he says. “Unexpectedly, they were causing changes in the behaviour of the white blood cells that take part in the disease process.”
This discovery in 2004 led to many more years of further research to refine the potential therapeutic power of the nano particles. These new therapies could offer significant advantages over current medications for people with type 1 diabetes, as well as other autoimmune disease, says Dr. Santamaria.
“Our nanomedicines are disease modifiers. We are boosting natural-occurring mechanisms in the immune system to terminate inflammation when it happens. So, they have the capacity to bring the autoimmune response back to the steady state,” explains Dr. Santamaria.
Another advantage is the fact that the new therapies can be designed to target different autoimmune disorders, using specific proteins.
“Many of the drugs used for autoimmune diseases today aren’t targeted to a specific disease and more or less, they suppress the entire immune system. Patients can end up with side effects because the full system is affected.”
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