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Tuesday, 30 November, 1999, 12:03 GMT
Breakthrough on crippling diseases
Lab work The research has taken 10 years

Scientists hope a natural compound could provide a breakthrough in treating inflammatory diseases like rheumatoid arthritis.

The treatment could also help to tackle diseases affecting the lungs, kidneys, stomach and skin.

Currently, such diseases are generally treated with steroids that can produce side effects such as osteoporosis and diabetes.

This work may lead us to understand how inflammation is controlled
Dr Robin Stevenson
Dr Robin Stevenson and Dr Tony Lawrence, from Glasgow University, have spent 10 years isolating a naturally-occurring agent they hope will provide a more effective alternative.

The scientists have identified thymosin beta 4 sulphoxide, an agent in the body which acts to prevent the immune system racing out of control.

Dr Stevenson said: "Inflammation is part of the body's natural defence against infection or injury but may occur without obvious cause, resulting in the severe and often permanent damage of chronic inflammatory disease.

"We believe that the peptide identified, thymosin beta 4 sulphoxide, acts to prevent the immune system from racing out of control."

Dr Lawrence said the research could lead to successful treatment without unpleasant side effects.

He said: "We believe that we have discovered one of the body's natural ways of signalling that the defence mechanisms have gone too far."

Thymosin beta 4 is present within most cells of the body, but when it is released in a significantly modified form, it indicates that the processes used to destroy bacteria have started to damage host tissues and must be switched off.

Treatment years off

Dr Stevenson said the production of a treatment using the agent was many years off.

It was now up to the drugs companies to fund clinical trials, he said.

"We are only starting out. We need to gain a better understanding of how the peptide works, how it is regulated and how we can utilise it as therapy.

"We think that this work may lead us to understand how inflammation is controlled and what failures in these processes lead to the development of chronic inflammatory diseases."

Dr Madeline Devey, scientific secretary of the Arthritis Research Campaign, said the research sounded "quite exciting".

She said: "Development of new treatments for arthritis are absolutely vital. The treatments that we have are, on the whole, really not very good."

However, Dr Devey warned that the immune response was highly complicated, and that much work was needed before new treatments could be used on patients.

The research, backed by the Imperial Cancer Research Fund, is published in the journal Nature Medicine
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See also:
18 Nov 99 |  Health
Arthritis drug prompts funding worries
07 Jun 99 |  Health
Arthritis: A new north-south divide
12 Feb 99 |  Health
Transplant hope for arthritic children
23 Nov 99 |  Health
Joints better with two veg

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