In 2013 researchers discovered something interesting about the protein BH4. They found that by inhibiting the protein they could reduce patient’s pain. A drug was created called Quartet, and it was to be marketed as a non-narcotic drug for pain relief. Everything was set to put the drug on the market until a discovery in 2017 indicated that the treatment may produce neurological side effects. Work on the drug was immediately stopped. It was said to be a failed development.
Researchers just recently found that BH4 actually has an effect on T cells as well. Basically, T cells are increased or decreased depending on the levels of BH4 in the body.
So why is this important?
Patients with autoimmune conditions need less T Cells. Cancer patients need more. If we can use BH4 to control the presence of these T cells, we could potentially treat these conditions.
“It was like opening an entirely new door in T cell biology – a door we can now rationally close to treat autoimmunity or keep open for T cells to kill cancer.”
Perhaps the most significant thing about this new discovery though, is that BH4 affects all T cells. Most therapies currently being investigated to treat autoimmune conditions only target one particular type of T cell. That means it would potentially be the only type of therapy needed to treat patients with these diagnoses.
So how did they discover this?
It was all thanks to a career switch. Shane Cronin is a researcher trained in immunology who is originally from Ireland. After his post-doc he found himself done with studying immunology. He was ready for something new and decided to begin studying pain, and specifically, the neurobiology of pain. While doing research on BH4 as a pain medicine, he saw the same compounds present which he had studied as an immunologist. These compounds were the ones responsible for regulating T Cells.
He was intrigued, but he didn’t have the equipment to study the T cells where he was currently working. So, as soon as he had the opportunity to move back to the immunology lab where he had first trained he did. That lab had the type of equipment he needed to study T cells and as soon as he was back he dived in. With the equipment he was able to confirm his initial findings.
His discovery is proof of the importance of communication and collaboration between different branches of science. A different background gives researchers a different lens with which to look at a problem, and could result in a fascinating new discovery. Scientists simply need to be willing to keep an open mind.
What does this discovery mean moving forward?
This discovery shows that the BH4 pathway could be used as a potential treatment option for a wide array of conditions. These include various cancers, lupus, inflammatory bowel disease, psoriasis, and others.
It’s turned out to be extremely beneficial that BH4 developments failed before. From that failure, researchers have been able to access a vast amount of data from studies that have already been conducted concerning the treatment. Since they have access to this data, scientists believe they may be able to start clinical trials for autoimmune conditions and cancer within 18 months. That timeframe is practically unheard of.
Stay tuned to hear future updates on this discovery. Hopefully we will see clinical trials starting soon for these conditions!
You can read more about this new discovery and how it came about here.