Consider Habib Zaghouani a peacekeeper in the war zone that is the human body.
viruses and cancer cells are constantly making incursions that could prove lethal. Our immune system, an army of cells and proteins patrolling the body, is on ready alert. Its mission is to seek out and destroy alien intruders before they can establish a beachhead. Usually, the immune system identifies the enemy accurately and terminates it effectively.
But mistakes are made.
Zaghouani, a professor of molecular microbiology and immunology and the University of Missouri's J. Lavenia Edwards chair in pediatrics, is trying to prevent one of the most disastrous mishaps of this potentially deadly biological warfare: friendly fire.
The immune system can mistake the body's own cells for invaders and attack with devastating consequences, causing the carnage of autoimmune disease. When, for example, the immune system takes aim at the fatty myelin sheath protecting the nerves of the brain and spinal cord, multiple sclerosis results. When it attacks joints, it causes rheumatoid arthritis. And when it destroys the insulin-producing beta cells of the pancreas, the outcome is type 1 diabetes.
There are more than 80 of these autoimmune diseases. The National Institutes of Health estimates that up to 23.5 million Americans suffer from them, and their prevalence is increasing. "These are complex diseases, like cancer. They need to be challenged," Zaghouani says.
After devoting the past two decades of his career to the search, Zaghouani believes that a cure is within his grasp. He already has succeeded in reversing paralysis in mice suffering from an experimentally induced version of multiple sclerosis. And at his MU laboratory, he has halted the autoimmune destruction of pancreatic cells that leads to diabetes. Insulin-producing cells even began to regenerate with the treatment. Clinical trials on people could be just a few years away.
These two diseases take a terrible toll. Type 1 diabetes affects about 1.4 million people and accounts for 5 to 10 percent of all diabetes cases diagnosed in the United States. The disease usually strikes people before age 20; for that reason it is often referred to as juvenile diabetes.
Patients with type 1 diabetes require a lifetime of regular insulin injections to survive. Even when well-controlled, type 1 diabetes can lead to severe complications as it damages blood vessels, the heart, nerves, eyes and kidneys.
About 350,000 people in the United States have multiple sclerosis. MS can cause unpredictable attacks of muscle weakness, fatigue and pain. These assaults can be followed by months or even years with no signs of disease.