| 6.6°C Dublin

Irish mathematician's decoding may add up to disease cure

AN Irish mathematician has helped crack complex codes about our immune system which may ultimately lead to better treatments for Crohn's, coeliac disease, diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis.

Dr Ken Duffy, of NUI Maynooth's Hamilton Institute, made the breakthrough on a team of international scientists aiming to design new vaccines for crippling illnesses.

The revolutionary research, published in the prestigious US-based journal Science, turns the existing rules on white blood cell behaviour and the body's defences on their head.

"The science community will be surprised. This is very much a different way of viewing things. It's not the standard accepted paradigm," Dr Duffy said.

The key discovery is that cells react randomly rather than having a pre-determined uniform response to disease. The team studied B cells from mice, the fundamental elements of immune defences capable of making antibodies.

Dr Duffy has been working on the breakthrough research since linking up with Professor Philip Hodgkin from Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in Melbourne, Australia in 2007.

The team's ultimate aim is to help design new therapies for auto-immune diseases and improved vaccines and also take what they have learnt so far and use it to explore how immune systems can resist bacteria and viruses.

Any further developments on cell reaction could also see studies into treatment for common allergies such as hay fever and debilitating disease such as multiple sclerosis.

Dr Duffy, lead author of study, said: "The reason for doing all this work is to gain an understanding in order to manipulate cells for the fighting of auto-immune disease. Before you can manipulate a system, first you must understand it."

The breakthrough was fast-tracked for publication last week by editors at Science who regard the findings as being of major importance.

Using genetically modified mice they watched B cells that were exposed to a virus or bacteria. Even though all the cells saw the same external cues, no two behaved identically.

Scientists found the reactions are based on competing clocks randomly governing division, death and antibody production.

Dr Duffy, a probability expert, said: "The conundrum is that even though each cell behaves randomly, for given external cues the overall immune response is highly predictable.

"This is like an election. Two voters can be exposed to the same external signals, posters for Fianna Fail, which may persuade one of them, but the die-hard Labour supporter won't be swayed.

"Despite this local randomness and bias, when counted over enough voters a consistent consensus is achieved."

For the immune system, the scientists believe that the clocks which determine how a cell reacts can be manipulated and therefore prompt people's immune systems to respond more effectively to some disease.

"The importance of this research is that it informs how external signals can manipulate the behaviour of the whole population through manipulating the probabilities in each cell," Dr Duffy said.

The collaboration was instigated after Professor Hodgkin gave a lecture in NUI Maynooth in 2007 based on more than 20 years of study in the field and Dr Duffy suggested his work on mathematical probability could help.