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Charities join forces to tackle immune system conditions - research first could help four million in UK

A group of medical research charities has launched a first-of-its-kind research project to confront the UK’s high prevalence of autoimmune conditions.  

The initiative, called Connect Immune Research, has revealed an estimated four million people in the UK are living with an autoimmune condition – which is more than six per cent of the population. This includes 400,000 people with type 1 diabetes, over 100,000 living with multiple sclerosis (MS) and over 400,000 with rheumatoid arthritis. 

Professor Yanick Crow, of the University of Edinburgh, has been awarded the first research grant from Connect Immune Research. He will be working with specialists from across different conditions to understand the role of an immune system protein, named interferon, in autoimmunity. 

Interferon can be harmful or beneficial in different autoimmune diseases, but it is not yet understood why. This study will use laboratory tests to understand the role of interferon in autoimmunity and the team hope it will lead to better, more targeted treatments.

Autoimmune conditions see the body’s immune system mistakenly attack healthy cells in the body. Up to a third of the four million people affected live with more than one autoimmune condition. This can lead to health needs that are more complex and lives that are more challenging.

Connect Immune Research is a collaboration between type 1 diabetes charity JDRF, the MS Society, and Versus Arthritis – supported by the British Society for Immunology, designed to bring about a critical change in the way autoimmune conditions are researched. Wellcome and the Medical Research Council (MRC) also supported the development of Connect Immune Research and this is the first time charities have joined forces in this way, recognizing the critical need for this work.

Karen Addington, UK Chief Executive of type 1 diabetes charity JDRF, said: “Autoimmune conditions all involve the immune system acting inappropriately, so we know they are connected. But researchers investigating different autoimmune conditions are not. Until now they have largely worked separately, focused on the specific conditions rather than the interconnected factors of autoimmunity.

“By bringing them together, we can more find information about these conditions – meaning reduced costs, and more new treatments, faster. One insight into one condition could act as a skeleton key, unlocking a range of treatments and even cures.”

Dr Stephen Simpson, Director of Research at Versus Arthritis, said: “We know that there are over 400,000 people in the UK living with rheumatoid arthritis. The pain and fatigue caused by arthritis can significantly impact a person’s ability to move freely – making it difficult for them to travel to work, care for their family or get dressed. 

“The immune system continues to intrigue us and as we get closer to finding ways of moderating its response in inflammatory arthritis, new and unexpected challenges emerge. This is why it’s important for charities and scientists to come together in this way and look at autoimmune conditions collectively, as well as focusing on specific conditions. 

“By working together and sharing expertise, we can ramp up our understanding and address questions not only relevant to people with arthritis but for those living with other autoimmune conditions, such as MS and type 1 diabetes.” 

Dr Susan Kohlhaas, MS Society Director of Research, said: “Autoimmunity needs to be recognised as a distinct area of research science, alongside the likes of cancer, infectious disease and dementia. We’re driving research into more and better treatments all the time, but autoimmunity must be supported to stand on its own and grow as a research area. We hope that by working together in this way we can not only reduce the risk of developing these conditions and help millions of people, but perhaps one day find ways of preventing them.”

Dr Doug Brown, Chief Executive of the British Society for Immunology said: “Immunology is a vital branch of medical science in which the UK leads the world with new discoveries. Connect Immune Research will exploit this UK strength by bringing together the best brains in immunology to study different autoimmune diseases together. This is just the start of a brand new approach to immunology research and will, with even more support, lead to us transforming the lives of people living with autoimmune conditions.” 


Newsdesk notes

For further information contact the JDRF press team: / 07908 155480.

JDRF is the leading global organisation funding type 1 diabetes research. Our mission is to accelerate life-changing breakthroughs to cure, prevent and treat type 1 diabetes and its complications. To accomplish this, JDRF has invested more than £1 billion since our inception. We collaborate with the most talented minds to develop and deliver a pipeline of innovative therapies to people living with type 1 diabetes. Our staff and volunteers around the globe are dedicated to campaigning for our vision of a world without type 1 diabetes. For more information, please visit or follow us on Twitter: @JDRFUK.

Multiple sclerosis (MS) affects more than 100,000 people in the UK. The condition is often painful and exhausting and can cause problems with how we walk, move, see, think and feel. It’s unpredictable and different for everyone. The MS Society is here for people with MS, through the highs, lows and everything in between. In addition to campaigning on issues including social care, welfare, and treatment options, we invest millions of pounds in ground-breaking research. We have a free helpline - 0808 800 8000 and information can be found on our website

See for more information about Versus Arthritis.

The British Society for Immunology is the UK organisation representing scientists and clinicians who study the immune system. Our mission is to promote excellence in immunological research, scholarship and clinical practice in order to improve human and animal health. Find out more at