Scientists at Trinity College Dublin have discovered an effective way of turning off inflammation in certain cells in the immune system.
The researchers say their findings could in time have significant implications for the treatment of a myriad of illnesses, including arthritis and inflammatory bowel disease, that are caused by an inflammatory reaction.
The research focused on a type of white blood cell called a macrophage, known to be a major cause of many forms of inflammation.
The scientists discovered that when a molecule called itaconate, produced when glucose is burned in a cell, is made within a macrophage it reacts with other inflammatory chemicals also in there.
That reaction and resulting modification of the proteins ultimately causes the macrophage to shut down, in effect flicking a switch to stop the inflammation.
"This stuff itaconate is really unexplored, (there's) only six or seven papers out there in the world on this," said Professor Luke O'Neill, Professor of Biochemistry in Trinity College Dublin.
"So a massive vista opens up for us. Can we figure out more about it, how does it work, could it become a new therapy? Many new questions now open up for us, which research is all about really."
The study, published in the journal ‘Nature’, was carried out by a team at the School of Biochemistry and Immunology in Trinity College Dublin, along with colleagues in seven other international institutions including Oxford, Cambridge and Harvard, as well as pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline.
The findings are the culmination of six years of work and represent the most important finding to date from the project.
A company called Sitryx has been formed to move the discovery forward, with a view to developing it into a therapy for multiple diseases.
"By looking at targets of itaconate you can see well what proteins are going to be anti-inflammatory," said Dylan Ryan, a PhD student in TCD and joint first author on the paper with Dr Evanna Mills.
"So when you want to design a drug you can look at these proteins, are these druggable and bring them forward to the clinic hopefully in the future."
It will, however, be some time before that stage is reached because so far the work has only proven successful in human cells and mice in the lab setting.
The research is very much at the frontier of the new and exciting area of immuno-metabolism - the study of what role the metabolism plays on inflammation.