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Autoimmune Disease

What goes wrong when our immune systems attack our own bodies?

In autoimmune disease, our immune cells mistakenly attack our own organs and tissues, believing them to be foreign invaders.

Because the immune system interacts with every part of the body, autoimmune diseases themselves can affect every organ in the body, depending on the disease. There are more than 80 different known autoimmune diseases. Many of these are currently treated with drugs intended to dampen the immune system’s response but, in many cases, the consequences of using these drugs on the overall immune system is poorly understood and can leave patients vulnerable to infections. For many autoimmune diseases, current treatments don’t work for all patients.

Researchers at the Allen Institute for Immunology are working to unravel the complex dysregulation at the heart of autoimmune disease. Currently, they are studying rheumatoid arthritis and inflammatory bowel disease.

Rheumatoid Arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis, or RA, is a common autoimmune disease, affecting nearly 1.3 million people in the U.S. and nearly three times as many women as men. While the underlying immune dysfunction that leads to RA is unclear, the disease’s symptoms arise from immune cells attacking the lining of the joints, causing painful swelling and even disability in some patients.

Immune dysregulation in RA begins years before the disease manifests obvious symptoms. Researchers at the Allen Institute for Immunology are working to pinpoint the immune mechanisms that ultimately trigger painful or debilitating symptoms. Understanding what happens in the immune system before symptoms appear could help scientists identify drug targets for earlier treatment or even prevention of the disease.

Together with researchers at the University of California San Diego and the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, our scientists are deeply profiling the immune system of study volunteers known to be at high risk of RA. By analyzing the immune system of these people over time, they’ll be able to gather snapshots of how the immune system changes before and after symptoms manifest. This work could also lead to new understandings about how other autoimmune diseases develop.

Pre RA Umap

Inflammatory bowel disease

Inflammatory bowel disease, or IBD, is a class of autoimmune diseases that includes Crohn’s disease and Ulcerative Colitis. The cause of IBD is mysterious but scientists believe that the immune system mistakenly attacks the cells that line the gut, triggering inflammation in the digestive system. These diseases can be debilitating if severe, even necessitating surgery.

There is no cure for IBD; patients are typically treated with anti-inflammatory or immune-suppressive treatment, but these therapies don’t always work and can lead to other chronic health problems. Researchers don’t know all the effects these drugs can have on the immune system and why they don’t work for some patients.

Together with researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, Allen Institute scientists are studying the effects of a certain anti-inflammatory drug on the immune system in the hopes of understanding why it works in some patients but not in others. These studies could provide insights that could lead to new, more effective treatments for IBD.

Gloved hand reaching into robot for an immunology experiment at the Allen Institute

Science Programs at Allen Institute