When the immune system turns against the body’s own cells, it can be dangerous. Dresden-based researchers are working to alter the process.

The human immune system is amazingly complex, even for scientists like Karsten Kretschmer. The system is designed to defend the body against infectious microorganisms, but it can also attack healthy cells in the case of autoimmune diseases. Kretschmer, a professor at the Center for Regenerative Therapies Dresden (CRTD), has spent many years researching why this happens – and his efforts are beginning to yield results.

Programmed T cells

One of the most common autoimmune diseases is diabetes mellitus type 1, an area the young professor is particularly interested in. “This is a serious form of diabetes in which the body’s own immune defences destroy the beta cells that produce insulin required for the metabolism of sugar,” explains Kretschmer. It affects many thousands of diabetics around the world, who are reliant on artificial insulin or the transplantation of new beta cells. Many also need to take medication, which may weaken the entire immune system. In order to help those affected, the scientist and his research team have been exploring why the body fights and destroys healthy cells in this way. “We now know that defective information processes are to blame for causing aggressive T cells in the immune system to attack healthy cells,” explains Kretschmer. This information is delivered by special “guardian cells” that continually monitor the body and, in the case of an infection for example, provide the T cells with the information they require. “When an instruction is received to attack the beta cells, things get dangerous,” says the scientist, who decided to work with his team on finding a solution – with successful results. “We were able to influence the guardian cells in the animal model in a way that prevented the T cells receiving any more defective information,” says Kretschmer. This extensive, in-depth research has taken many years, but is now helping to increase the chance of a better quality of life for many patients.

The path to excellence

The success achieved by Karsten Kretschmer and his 20-strong team is a major step towards being able to treat autoimmune diseases. It also demonstrates that an excellent research environment attracts the very best talent from all over the world. Over a third of the 200 staff at CRTD come from 27 other countries across five continents. Kretschmer himself also carried out research abroad, including in Italy and at the highly respected Harvard Medical School in Boston, before joining the CRTD in 2007. “The tenure track process here in Dresden was obviously a very important factor,” says the newly appointed professor. In conjunction with the Free State of Saxony and the TU Dresden, the CRTD is able to take advantage of this unique system to award outstanding young researchers a professorship according to defined criteria, even if they have not pursued the traditional academic career path. As a key location for research, Saxony benefits from this kind of practical approach, as the development of the Research Center for Regenerative Therapies Dresden clearly shows. Founded as an interdisciplinary network of research groups, the CRTD was approved by the German Research Foundation (DFG) as a DFG research centre in early 2006, which instantly placed it in the premier league of top-level German research institutions. In October 2006, the CRTD became an excellence cluster of the TU Dresden as part of the German government’s excellence initiative. The CRTD was successfully re-confirmed as an excellence cluster and DFG research centre again in June 2012, meaning the future now looks very positive for the development of pioneering new treatments.