The Royal Science Academy of Sciences has decided to award the 2017 Crafoord Prize in Polyarthritis to Shimon Sakaguchi, Osaka University, Osaka, Japan, Fred Ramsdell, Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy, San Francisco, CA, USA, and Alexander Rudensky, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, New York, NY, USA
“for their discoveries relating to regulatory T cells, which counteract harmful immune reactions in arthritis and other autoimmune diseases.”
Three immunology researchers share 2017’s Crafoord Prize in Polyarthritis, for which the prize money is 6 million Swedish krona. The research being rewarded deals with the discovery of regulatory T cells, cells that can be regarded as our immune system’s security guards. They put a brake on cells that are overzealous and attack the body’s own tissue. There are hopes that their discoveries will lead the way to new, highly effective treatment methods for autoimmune diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis, MS and type 1 diabetes.
Autoimmune diseases arise when the body’s immune system malfunctions, attacking normal tissue. Globally, these diseases cause great suffering and premature death for millions of people. Autoimmune diseases include multiple sclerosis (MS), type 1 diabetes and polyarthritis. The latter is a term used for rheumatic diseases in which multiple joints are affected.
There are great hopes that highly effective treatments for autoimmune diseases will be possible, based on new knowledge about the immune system that was gained over the last few decades. Three researchers are now being rewarded for their fundamental discoveries in the field: Shimon Sakaguchi, Fred Ramsdell, and Alexander Rudensky.
The Laureates’ discoveries relate to regulatory T cells, which are the immune system’s security guards. Their task is to keep an eye on other white blood cells that are overzealous in their task of defending the body from intruders and could harm things they should leave alone, such as healthy cells in joints, the pancreas or the brain.
Even back in the 1960s, researchers were searching for suppressor cells in the immune system, but the research results were contradictory. Accordingly, over time, the consensus became that no such cells existed. Despite this, Shimon Sakaguchi persevered with the search and, after many years, he succeeded in identifying the cells that are now called regulatory T cells. Some years later, Fred Ramsdell approached the same area from a different direction; he isolated and identified the gene that is linked to severe autoimmune disease in a particular strain of mice. He also demonstrated that mutation in the same gene in humans, now known as FOXP3, causes a severe congenital disease called IPEX. Shortly afterwards, decisive findings were made, linking these two pieces of knowledge together. Alexander Rudensky, Shimon Sakaguchi and Fred Ramsdell each described how the FOXP3 gene is vital to a process that results in some T cells becoming security guards in the immune system. These are the regulatory T cells, which can prevent autoimmune reactions because they detect and suppress overzealous colleagues in the immune system.
A great number of clinical trials are now being conducted globally, with research teams testing various ways of using regulatory T cells to subdue the immune system’s attacks that cause autoimmune diseases. The long-term vision is that of a breakthrough in the treatment of polyarthritis and other autoimmune syndromes, which could be treated more effectively than they are today.