New treatments for inflammatory diseases could be on the way thanks to a significant discovery made by an international group of scientists, including some at Trinity College Dublin.
The treatments could be used for a whole range of inflammatory disease including arthritis, Alzheimer's, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's, gout, asthma and Muckle-Wells syndrome.
The researchers have found that a molecule, previously developed and then abandoned by a multinational pharmaceutical company, can block one of the key drivers of a plethora of inflammatory conditions.
The molecule, MCC950, was produced by Pfizer two decades ago as a possible treatment for arthritis.
However, the company discontinued its efforts to bring the drug to market, and the intellectual property rights on it subsequently lapsed.
Around eight years ago, scientists at Trinity's Biomedical Sciences Institute led by Professor of Biochemistry Luke O'Neill came across the compound and began to explore its potential uses.
They subsequently discovered that it could effectively block the NLRP3 inflammasome.
Inflammasomes are a complex of molecules that trigger inflammation when exposed to infection or stress.
They have been identified as promising therapeutic targets for researchers in recent years.
The NLRP3 inflammasome has been found to be a common activator of a key process in certain inflammatory diseases.
The discovery by the research team, details of which are published in the journal Nature Medicine, confirms that all inflammatory diseases share a common process, although the part of the body which experiences the inflammation might differ.
The scientists subsequently carried out trials on mice and found that the molecule stopped the progression of multiple sclerosis and sepsis.
They also carried out testing on samples taken from humans with Muckle-Wells syndrome, a rare auto-inflammatory disorder, and discovered it was equally effective.
The scientists also say that it is likely the drug could produce fewer common side-effects, such as susceptibility to infection, than other anti-inflammatory drugs, and could prove cheaper and capable of being administered orally.
The next stage will involve testing the compound on humans and a wider group of diseases.
The researchers say for certain conditions, like Muckle-Wells syndrome and asthma, such trials could take place as early as two to three years from now, as the drug had already undergone some human testing by Pfizer.
However, even if the trials prove the drug is safe and effective, they stress that it could be ten-15 years before it could be fully approved for use in humans for the treatment of more complex diseases like multiple sclerosis or Alzheimer's.
They also stress that while the molecule could become an effective treatment, it will not be a cure, though it is possible it could be effective in undoing some of the damage done by well progressed cases of certain diseases.
Prof O'Neill and his team now plan to form a company to further develop and test the compound.
MCC950 is also currently being tested on mice in the US for anti-ageing properties, as there is a growing school of thought that inflammation is responsible for much of the ageing process - a theory which has come to be known as "inflammaging".
The study, part funded by Science Foundation Ireland and the European Research Council, was carried out by a collaboration of six institutions, including the Universities of Queensland, Michigan, Massachusetts and Bonn.