In This Section      
Print This Page

Autoimmune Disease Research at the Johns Hopkins Institute for Basic Biomedical Sciences

immunological synapse

Autoimmune disease results from an overactive immune system that attacks its own tissues instead of fighting off pathogens. Researchers at the Institute for Basic Biomedical Sciences (IBBS) are investigating the cause and exploring new treatments for autoimmune diseases.

Autoimmunity causes more than 80 different diseases, their symptoms varying widely depending on the tissues affected. According to the National Institutes of Health, approximately five to eight percent of the U.S. population, the majority being women, suffers from an autoimmune disorder. Autoimmune diseases include disorders like type 1 diabetes in which the immune system damages the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas, rheumatoid arthritis where the immune system harms the joints or Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, which impairs the thyroid gland and, as a result, metabolism.

In serious cases, global immune suppressing drugs are used to restrain the body’s immune response, preventing it from doing further harm. Unfortunately, immunosuppressants render people more susceptible to infections.

IBBS researchers are taking measures to understand, on the molecular level, what goes wrong when the body’s defense system battles that which it is supposed to protect.

Stephen Desiderio, director of the IBBS and professor of molecular biology and genetics, and his colleagues study how the immune system responds to a wide variety of substances that it has never encountered. One way that the immune system does this is by the process of V(D)J recombination, where banks of gene fragments are pieced together to create various combinations that form the part of the antibody that detects pathogens to generate diversity, the ability to recognize a wide range of pathogens. Desiderio investigates how the body normally orchestrates this process and the detrimental effects that occur when mistakes occur.

Abraham Kupfer and colleagues in Cell Biology study T cells, the white blood cells that continually monitor the body for pathogens and instruct the rest of the immune system how to act during an infection. By searching for specific molecules that control the T cells’ machinery, Kupfer’s group hopes to use these molecules as therapeutic targets against which to design new drugs to treat autoimmune disorders. By eliminating only certain types of T cells that cause autoimmunity, Kupfer’s lab strives to keep the rest of the immune system intact and able to fight infections.

Joel Pomerantz of Biological Chemistry studies how T cells and B cells, another type of white blood cell, respond to infections by making the decision to grow, divide, recruit other immune cells to the fight or commit suicide in certain instances, such as when the cells are no longer needed after a subdued infection or when the cells mistakenly react to the body’s own cells. By understanding the intricacies that occur in the cellular machinery of white blood cells during this decision-making process, Pomerantz’s lab hopes to further understand what goes wrong in autoimmunity and certain types of cancers.