New drug against autoimmune diseases

18 Dec 2020 | Back to News, Publications and Annual Reports



Immunotherapy to treat autoimmune diseases has gained new momentum. Partly thanks to monkeys and mice, we now know more about how interleukin-2 works and how it can help patients in the future.

An imbalance in the immune system can lead to autoimmune disease. The reaction is not directed against a pathogen but against our own body. In autoimmune diseases such as type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis and, for example, chronic intestinal inflammation, Interleukin-2 (IL-2) often plays an important role in that imbalance, which is why it is a target for new medicines.


IL-2 plays an important role in the immune system. To understand this better, let's dive into the immunology textbooks. IL-2 is a signal molecule that binds to the IL-2 receptor (IL-2R). There are two forms of that IL-2 receptor. One is on so-called CD4-Treg, the other on CD8-T cells. CD4-Treg stands for CD4 positive regulatory T cells. These cells ensure that the action of CD8 T cells is muted. These CD8 T cells are precisely the ones that cause damage during many autoimmune diseases.

New therapy?

Scientists at the University of Zurich have found an immunotherapy that specifically stimulates the IL-2 receptor on CD4-Treg cells, but not the receptor on the CD8-T cells. This specific immunotherapy has first been tested in culture cells and later in mice. The results were very promising.

Good results in monkeys

In collaboration with BPRC researchers it has now been investigated whether this therapy has the same effect in monkeys. They examined the effects in monkeys using advanced laboratory techniques. The immunotherapy was also found to have a preference for CD4-Treg in monkeys whereas the CD8 cells were not affected.

This finding provides a good basis for the first human studies and may lead to new treatments for autoimmune diseases such as type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis and chronic intestinal inflammation.

The article can be found on the website of Science Translational Medicine.