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More MS news articles for December 2003

BYU study could help treat diabetes

Saturday, December 27, 2003
Christi C. Babbitt
The Daily Herald

Brigham Young University researchers are drawing closer to identifying a chemical "holy grail" that may aid future treatment of diseases like multiple sclerosis and Type 1 diabetes.

Paul B. Savage, a BYU associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry, is overseeing a team at the university that is investigating a certain kind of T cells in the body.Their work is part of a collaborative effort with researchers at The Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, Calif., and the University of Chicago.

"There's a real potential for this to impact human health in the long term," he said. Their findings were published Dec. 18 in Science Express, an online publication of Science magazine. Savage said the study is expected to be published soon in Science magazine.

Formed in the thymus, T cells destroy foreign bacteria and viruses. As T cells are formed, the body tests them to see if they can recognize antigens, or molecules that are recognized as foreign.

"If they can't recognize antigens, they're allowed to die," Savage said.

The study Savage is involved in is specifically looking at "natural killer T cells" and the type of antigen the body presents to them during this test. The antigen is transported by a protein. Savage said the research's significant discovery is that mice lacking this particular protein also lack the natural killer T cells; this means the protein is required to transfer the antigen that is presented in natural killer T cell selection.

Identifying the protein that transfers the antigen provides an excellent clue into the chemical structure of the antigen. This structure is ultimately what the scientists are looking for.

"This is a major finding," Savage said. "This all involves antigen presentation."

Knowing the chemical makeup of the antigen -- or antigens, there may be more than one -- would allow scientists to manipulate the natural killer T cells. These cells can be stimulated by antigens to go after viral infections and other foreign invaders in the body, but they also can release chemical messengers that "turn down" the body's immune system, Savage said.

This could be used to delay the onset of autoimmune diseases like multiple sclerosis and Type 1 diabetes, Savage said, when the immune system is the body's worst enemy. He hopes the findings could eventually be used to put multiple sclerosis into remission, although actual application of the research is years away.

It is likely that researchers will know exactly what some of the antigens are by this time next year, he said.

BYU researchers are performing chemical synthesis as their part of the project, while the other institutions are performing the immunological testing. Savage said the research is being funded by the National Institutes of Health.

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