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Immunology Update - June 2016

Welcome to the second installment of our new regular monthly slot where we report on research from the world of immunology, highlighting work from BSI members that has hit the headlines over the past four weeks.

Cancer drugs could target autoimmune disease

Image showing damage caused by uveitis in the untreated mouse eye (left) and the treated eye (right)

Image showing damage caused by uveitis in the untreated mouse eye (left) and the treated eye (right)

Researchers from University College London and King’s College London have examined the effectiveness of using drugs that are currently being trialled in cancer patients to treat autoimmune disease in mice.

Having discovered a genetic ‘key’ (called P-TEFb) that is important in both cancer cell growth and immune cell differentiation, they tested the drugs on a mouse model for uveitis, an incurable eye condition in which the immune system mistakenly attacks healthy tissue leading to inflammation of the uvea (the middle layer of the eye).  Writing in Cell Reports, the team state that they found the condition was significantly less severe in mice given the cancer drugs compared to controls.

BSI member Dr Richard Jenner from UCL explains, “Blocking this genetic key, called P-TEFb, prevents the immune system from mobilising such an aggressive response.  P-TEFb is important for a lot of cellular processes, and drives uncontrolled growth in cancer cells. A variety of drugs that target this pathway are currently undergoing trials for a range of cancers, and we hope to adapt these to target autoimmune conditions in future.”

Read the press release

Read the full article: Hertweck et al. 2016 Cell Reports DOI:

Calcium channel blocker may be effective therapy against fungal disease



The fungus Cryptococcosis neoformans is found throughout the world. People can become infected with it through breathing in its spores; however, generally the fungus only causes disease in those with weakened immune systems, in particular people with HIV/AIDS.  It is a difficult disease to treat as the fungus hides inside the patient’s own white blood cells.

Researchers from the University of Birmingham have discovered that a drug more commonly used for the treatment of angina may be an effective agent against cryptococcosis infection.  Through in vitro studies, they found that, instead of targeting the fungus directly, the drug (a calcium channel blocker called fendiline hydrochloride) stimulates the white blood cells to fight the disease more effectively. BSI member and lead researcher Professor Robin May explained, “Fungi are intrinsically more difficult to target than bacteria, because they are much more closely related, evolutionarily, to humans. Finding an essential pathway in a fungus that you could inhibit, which doesn’t exist in humans, is very difficult. Therefore the approach of stimulating your own immune system to kill the fungus, instead of killing it directly through treatment, is potentially more powerful.”

Whilst this work is still at an early stage, it shows the potential of using calcium channel blockers to target immune system activity to combat this type of disease. The work was reported in the International Journal of Antimicrobial Agents.

Read the press release

Read the full article: Samantaray et al. 2016 International Journal of Antimicrobial Agents DOI:

Immune system activity linked to likelihood of heart attack

Researchers from Imperial College London and University College London have found that people who have higher levels of IgG antibodies in their blood have a lower overall risk of heart attack.

Current tools used to assess cardiovascular risk are relatively imprecise. Writing in the journal EBioMedicine, the team set out to examine whether levels of different types of antibodies were correlated with the risk of adverse cardiac events.  They found that, in patients with hypertension, the total IgG serum level was independently associated with risk of coronary heart disease events.  IgG serum levels also came out as being a better predictor of who was most at risk of having a heart attack than the current methods used.

BSI member, Professor Dorian Haskard, co-senior author and BHF Professor at Imperial College London, said, “These very interesting findings linking the immune system to protection from heart disease have grown out of years of previous research funded by the British Heart Foundation. The study focused on patients under treatment for high blood pressure, and we now need to know if the link also applies to other groups at risk.”

Read the press release

Read the full article: Khamis et al. 2016 EBioMedicine doi:10.1016/j.ebiom.2016.06.012

Image credits: Uveitis in mouse eye  – (c) Hertweck et al. 2016 Cell Reports DOI: –  (c) Wikimedia Commons/Nephron