Cell therapy, which is already being used in experiments against several forms of tumors, could also be used in the near future to treat Crohn’s disease, an auto-immune disorder in which the intestine (and other areas of the digestive system), becomes chronically inflamed, causing a range of other problems (continuous diarrhoea, abdominal pain, intestinal ulcers, tiredness, weight loss). Little is yet known about the causes of the disease, but it is known that the immune system plays an important role.

What is “cell therapy”? Cell therapy is a technique that consists of extracting a series of immune system cells from a patient’s blood (in this case, T-regulatory lymphocytes), and modifying them in a laboratory to make them more efficient, using highly-complex procedures. Lymphocytes modified in this way are then inserted back into the patient’s blood. The tests, which for now have been performed in laboratory conditions by researchers from King’s College London, have produced very positive results with a low potential degree of toxicity, as reported by the researchers in the scientific journal Gastroenterology, and there are now plans to move to clinical experiments on patients, in the next six months.

This is how this innovative therapy works in more detail: the researchers discovered that the majority of people that suffer from Crohn’s disease have T-regulatory lymphocytes that do not produce enough of a protein called integrin α4β7 (which seems to play an important role in Crohn’s disease). By working with specialists from the National Institute for Health Research Biomedical Research Centre (BRC), also at King’s College, the gastroenterologists managed to regenerate the T-regulatory lymphocytes using a molecule called RAR568, restoring “healthy” levels of integrin α4β7. “This is the next frontier in cell therapy”, said Professor Graham Lord, who coordinated the study, “as we’re going beyond treating the symptoms of Crohn’s disease, and trying to ‘reset’ the immune system to address the condition”.

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