TCD team in significant research breakthrough

9 Apr 2004

A team of researchers funded by Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) has made a significant breakthrough that could lead to new treatments for infectious and inflammatory diseases.

The team of immunologists, led by Professor Luke O’Neill (pictured) in the Department of Biochemistry, Trinity College Dublin, has discovered a new process in our bodies that dampens down the potentially dangerous effects of an over-active immune response to bacterial infections.

The findings provide important new information on how our immune systems are regulated during infection and will help efforts to develop new treatments for diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis.

“The project dates back to 1999 when I was working on sabbatical at Millennium Pharmaceuticals in the USA,” said Professor O’Neill.

“Millennium had discovered a protein called ST2, which when activated would dampen down the inflammation that occurs in lungs during an asthma attack. What they didn’t know however, was how ST2 worked,” he explained.

In the following four years a new family of switches for the immune response were discovered, called the toll-like receptors (TLRs). These proteins respond to infection and trigger inflammation, which is required to eliminate invading microbes.

When over-activated, TLRs can become killers. People who die of bacterial infections – which number over 300,000 a year in Europe alone – die because of an over-activation of TLRs, in a manner akin to ‘friendly fire’.

The TCD team has discovered that ST2 can turn off TLRs, effectively acting as a brake on the signalling machine activated by them. “ST2 is not present at the start of the response, but is made later, acting as a brake on the inflammation that has been triggered,” said Prof O’Neill. These findings have been protected in the form of patents. This will ensure proper commercialisation in the development of innovative products for diagnosis and treatment of inflammatory dysfunction.

O’Neill is currently part of a collaborative effort with two other TCD researchers to commercialise their research with a new Irish biotechnology venture, Opsona.

Dr Maurice Treacy, director of biotechnology at Science Foundation Ireland which, in 2002, awarded O’Neill €3.6m in funding over five years for his Trinity lab, commented: “The ongoing programme aims to reveal further information on ST2 and TLRs and will enable the team make new discoveries that could have great commercial potential.”

By Brian Skelly