Connect Immune Research is a major new scientific initiative from the type 1 diabetes charity JDRF, Arthritis Research UK and MS Society. The British Society for Immunology is a supporting partner.
Here, three experts tell the story of the partnership so far – and what it could mean for researchers.
- Rachel Connor, JDRF’s Director of Research Partnerships
- Caroline Aylott, Arthritis Research UK’s Head of Research Awards and Translation
- David Coutts, MS Society’s Senior Research Manager
1. How are your organisations linked?
Caroline Aylott: “Type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis and certain types of arthritis are all types of autoimmune conditions which have no cure. We are the three leading research charities for these conditions.”
2. Why did the type 1 diabetes charity JDRF, Arthritis Research UK and MS Society decide to create Connect Immune Research?
Caroline Aylott: “Research into autoimmune conditions is often pursued in a disease-specific manner. There are significant opportunities to drive forward our understanding of these fields by encouraging research that works across, or learns from, a wide range of conditions. We want to build momentum among funders and scientists to find the answer by working together in a way that rarely happens across different immune conditions and to break down silos.
“There are a large number of autoimmune and inflammatory conditions known to science. As a type 1 diabetes charity, an arthritis charity and an MS charity, we want answers so we can prevent and find cures for these conditions. But the answer could also allow us to prevent and cure a whole range of other autoimmune and inflammatory conditions, which together affect approximately four million people in the UK. We see this time and time again with drug repurposing; in fact, anti-TNF was originally developed as a treatment for rheumatoid arthritis but it is now used to treat a wide range of inflammatory conditions.
“We know there are similarities in the genetic risk factors for many of these conditions. We know that many people live with more than one of them – for example 33 per cent of people diagnosed with type 1 diabetes have at least one other autoimmune disorder at diagnosis – they are much more likely to have coeliac disease or Hashimoto’s thyroiditis than the general population.”
3. How did you set up this partnership?
Rachel Connor: “In 2014, Wellcome and JDRF joined forces to host a ‘Frontiers workshop’ on common mechanisms of autoimmunity.
“In 2015, the Medical Research Council and Arthritis Research UK joined Wellcome and JDRF in looking at the grand scientific challenges to be tackled around autoimmune and immune-mediated research. With these partners, we realised we were often funding similar research looking at similar mechanisms in different disease areas. We wanted to ask how researchers of different autoimmune and immune-mediated conditions could be empowered to collaborate more closely – and discover a host of new treatments.
“A further workshop followed at which JDRF and Arthritis Research UK announced our intention to join forces to support collaborative working among this scientific community. With the partnership in place, MS Society swiftly saw the power of this opportunity. Our emerging coalition is Connect Immune Research.
“We have started by funding pilot work: we want scientists from different immune-related specialities to come together to begin uncovering the common threads of these conditions. Progress in individual fields could be turned into faster progress across many fields.
“We are delighted to have the British Society for Immunology join Connect Immune Research in 2018 as a supporting partner. The BSI has shone its spotlight on the initial Connect Immune Research call for applications. This call has invited researchers to form consortia addressing any of the five chosen grand challenges: immunological tolerance; environmental impact on genetic predisposition; common mechanisms shared across immune conditions; toolkits, technologies and platforms; and translational perspectives on therapeutics.”
‘We want to place ourselves and immunologists at the forefront of both public and scientific conversations about rising rates of autoimmune conditions.’
4. How is the partnership funded?
David Coutts: “Arthritis Research UK, JDRF and MS Society have committed equal funding to the pilot research initiative.
“We believe that allowing the scientific community to show they can work together across conditions will help larger funders begin to see ‘autoimmune conditions’ as a single category much like ‘infectious diseases’, ‘mental health’ or cancer are today.
“As the initiative develops and begins to deliver some results, we hope that a variety of partner organisations with an interest in research related to autoimmune conditions will want to join us and the BSI.”
5. What does the partnership mean for researchers and research?
Rachel Connor: “JDRF has become increasingly aware of the compound positive effects to be won by supporting research projects featuring collaboration between researchers working in different disease areas . This approach, driven by the Connect Immune Research programme, could add a wealth of knowledge to our type 1 diabetes-specific autoimmunity research strategy.
“Cross-disease immunological collaboration also allows researchers to fit their hard work into a wider goal for UK science. In the long term, we could discover that one treatment in a single condition is a skeleton key, unlocking impact far beyond the initial indication. This could also dramatically reduce costs and speed transformation of treatment for millions of people.”
6. What impact will the partnership have on patients?
David Coutts: “Even before we achieve scientific insights, we believe that working together in this way can help reposition autoimmune and immune-mediated inflammatory conditions in public discourse. People with MS and inflammatory arthritis know that their overwhelming fatigue is due to their autoimmune condition, just like people with type 1 diabetes know their condition is not linked to their lifestyle choices. But the public at large does not.
“Working together, we hope to raise public comprehension of autoimmunity itself, and so provide the basis for better understanding of all of these conditions. We want to place ourselves and immunologists at the forefront of both public and scientific conversations about rising rates of autoimmune conditions.”
7. What is your request of BSI members?
Rachel Connor: “None of us can tackle this alone, so as a researcher focused on an autoimmune or immune-mediated condition, please follow and support our progress.”
JDRF is leading on researcher communications for Connect Immune Research. Email firstname.lastname@example.org to find out more about the project. MS Society’s research team can be contacted at email@example.com. Arthritis Research UK can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.