Li discovered that the FOXP3 protein works via a complex set of enzymes. One set of those enzymes are called histone deacetylases, or HDACs. These enzymes are linked to the FOXP3 protein in association with another set of enzymes called histone acetyl transferases that modify the FOXP3 proteins.
Li found that when the histone acetyl transferases are turned on, or when the histone deacetylases are turned off, the immune regulatory cells work better and longer. As a consequence of the action of the acetylating enzyme, the FOXP3 protein functions to turn off pathways that would lead to autoimmune diseases.
“I think this simple approach will revolutionize the treatment of autoimmune diseases in humans because we have a new set of enzymatic drug targets as opposed to the non-specific therapies we now use,” says Greene. Non-specific therapies include the use of steroids and certain chemotherapy-like drugs that act on many cell types and have significant side effects.
“Before this work FOXP3 was thought essential for regulatory T-cell function, but how FOXP3 worked was not known,” says Li. “Our research identifies a critical mechanism. Based on this mechanism, treatments could be developed to modulate this regulatory cell population.”
“In this line of investigation, we have learned how to turn on or off this regulatory immune cell population – which is normally needed to prevent autoimmune diseases – using drugs that are approved for other purposes, but work on these enzymes” notes co-author Sandra Saouaf, PhD, a research associate at Penn.
Li, Greene, Saouaf and Penn colleagues Wayne Hancock and Youhai Chen are now extending this research directly to several mouse models of autoimmune diseases.
Additional co-authors are Arabinda Samanta, Xiaomin Song, Kathryn T. Iacono, Kathryn Bembas, Ran Tao, Samik Basu, and James Riley, all from Penn.
Karen Kreeger | EurekAlert!
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