Researchers at the University of California, Irvine (UCI) have discovered two natural compounds that could help stop the haywire immune response that’s behind autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and Type1 diabetes.
Â Before we get to the study, let’s take a look at what happens when an autoimmune disease strikes. White blood cells are the major players in your body’s defense line-up. They seek and destroy infections and diseases, such as cancer. However, sometimes (for reasons yet to be determined) these powerful white cells malfunction and start damaging the parts of the body that they were meant to protect.
Â Depending on the portion of the body affected, this can lead to any number of conditions, which are grouped under the term “autoimmune diseases.” Two very common types of this immune system overreaction are Type 1 diabetes and RA — these are the conditions that were examined in the recent UCI study.
Â According to the American Diabetes Association, approximately 20.8 million Americans suffer from diabetes and up to 10% of the cases are Type 1 diabetes. Type 1 diabetes was once referred to as “juvenile diabetes,” as it’s normally diagnosed in childhood or early adulthood. This form of diabetes is characterized as an autoimmune disease because the white blood cells destroy the pancreas’ insulin- producing cells. Insulin is a hormone that’s essential in the production and regulation of glucose (i.e. blood sugar), which is what provides the body with energy for all its essential functions. It can be quite dangerous, potentially leading to nerve damage, vision problems, or heart or kidney disease.
Â RA is a form of arthritis brought on by inflammation in the joints, which is triggered by an immune system overreaction. Affecting around 2.1 million people in the U.S., this disabling condition can cause red and swollen joints, pain and stiffness in the muscles and joints, and inflammation around the heart or lungs. In severe cases, a person suffering from RA might be disabled or deformed, unable to perform daily activities, such as getting dressed.
Â So, it’s not surprising that medical science is constantly searching for new ways to treat or prevent autoimmune diseases — and if the remedy is natural, then all the better. UCI researchers wanted to do just that — test out two naturally sourced compounds on autoimmune diseases. In two separate tests, the research team looked at the effects of modified compounds from the rue plant (the compound is called “PAP-1”) and Cuban sea anemone venom extract (“SL5”). Rue is a small evergreen shrub with a strong smell and a sea anemone is a small creature with little tentacles that attaches itself to rocks at the bottom of a sea or ocean.
Â In the first part of the study, the UCI researchers used blood samples from Type 1 diabetes patients and joint fluid samples from RA patients. When treated with PAP-1 or SL5, the T-cells (a type of white blood cell) involved in the autoimmune reaction in both types of samples were inhibited, while the healthy T-cells were left alone to protect the body from infection.
Â In the second part of the study, the scientists looked at rats that either had diabetes or an experimental form of RA. In the diabetic rodents, PAP-1 slowed down the onset of the disease and reduced the risk of disease. In the rats with RA, the SL5 compound stopped the joint disease from progressing and led to improved joint function.
Â The UCI researchers now believe that the PAP-1 and SL5 compounds plug up an ion channel in the rogue T cells involved in autoimmune diseases. In this way, they stop the cells from reproducing and stem the production of “cytokines,” which are chemicals that are used to damage other cells in an autoimmune attack. This is very exciting, as it seems these two new, natural compounds could stop both terrible diseases in their tracks. Further tests are underway to determine the safety of these compounds in humans.