This year’s Crafoord Prize in Polyarthritis was awarded to three researchers in the field of immunology for discoveries made in immune regulatory T-cells, a subpopulation of T-cells that modulate the immune system, maintain tolerance to self-antigens, and help to prevent autoimmune diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis (RA).
The prize, awarded annually by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and worth 6 million Swedish krona (about $670,4oo), was granted to Shimon Sakaguchi, a researcher at Osaka University, Japan; Fred Ramsdell, who works at the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy, San Francisco; and Alexander Rudensky, a researcher at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York. The award recognizes their work as breakthroughs that may lead to highly effective therapeutic targets for autoimmune diseases.
The discoveries relate to regulatory T-cells, also called Tregs, which are known to play an indispensable role in preventing an immunological response to self-antigens (protein markers produced by the body) and in suppressing excessive, damaging immune responses, such as those to joints, according to a release by the Crafoord Prize Committee.
After decades of controversy about the actual existence and the role of Tregs, Sakaguchi persisted with work that eventually led him to discover and identify them.
Ramsdell, working in the same field, later conducted experiments with mice that isolated and identified the FOXP3 gene, a now well-established gene linked to severe autoimmune diseases.
He also found that a mutation in the FOXP3 gene in humans causes a rare severe inherited disease called IPEX. The disease leads to the dysfunction of regulatory T-cells and subsequent autoimmunity.
Key findings were later made linking these two pieces of knowledge together.
Rudensky, Sakaguchi and Ramsdell each described how the FOXP3 gene is fundamental to a process that results in some T-cells becoming the immune system’s safety guards (Tregs).
Research teams are currently conducting clinical trials worldwide testing various approaches, based on using Tregs, to reduce the immune system attacks that underlie autoimmune diseases.
The long-term goal is to discover new therapeutic targets for polyarthritis, a rheumatic disease in which multiple joints are affected, and other autoimmune diseases.
There are as many as 80 types of autoimmune diseases, including multiple sclerosis and polyarthritis. According to the American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association (AARDA), up to 50 million Americans are affected by autoimmune diseases.