Autoimmune diseases and conditions are the result of confusion within the body’s immune system. Typically, the immune system functions properly by defending the body against various foreign agents and pathogens. When a patient contracts an autoimmune disorder, the immune system actually begins to attack tissues and cells throughout the body.
There are more than 20 million patients in the United States who are living with an autoimmune disorder and that number is only continuing to climb. The number of autoimmune disorders in the United States has continued to rise over the past few decades. This cannot be ignored by the medical and research community, as more treatment methods need to be developed.
Patients who develop an autoimmune disorder can experience a severe drop in quality of life. Additionally, autoimmune disorders have a number of complications, including death. The most frustrating part that many patients experience is that the medical community cannot give them a full explanation on why they are experiencing this disorder. When a patient contracts a virus, a doctor can find the virus. But, the medical community often has a difficult time explaining to a patient why they developed an autoimmune disease.
Current medical treatments for autoimmune disorders do not fully address the needs of patients and may not be effective at treating the disease. Patients may become increasingly frustrated with conventional medicine’s treatment options. These treatments often have additional side effects that can affect the quality of life of the patient as well.
The medical community is beginning to look at alternative treatment methods for patients with various autoimmune disorders. Natural killer cell therapy is being looked at for a number of autoimmune conditions. This therapy is innovative and has been used to treat various forms of cancer. The medical community wants to repurpose natural killer cell therapy and use it to treat patients with autoimmune disorders. Let’s break down the basics of autoimmune diseases to better understand how natural killer cells can help.
What Is An Autoimmune Disease?
In the simplest terms, an autoimmune disorder occurs when the immune system attacks the body. There are more than 80 autoimmune disorders that are currently known in the medical world. Some autoimmune disorders are more common in females as compared to males. Researchers have theorized that this is due to the fact that females undergo more hormonal changes.
There are many types of autoimmune diseases and they each have their own characteristics. Here are a few of the most common types where natural killer cells may play a role in their development:
Rheumatoid arthritis is one of the most common autoimmune diseases in the world. The immune system creates chronic inflammation in various joints throughout the body. This
inflammation causes chronic pain in the joints, as well as damaging cartilage and tissue in the joints. Patients with rheumatoid arthritis often have flare ups throughout their experience with the condition.
Multiple sclerosis may be the most deadly autoimmune system that affects the nervous system. One study found that at least 50% of patients diagnosed with the condition died within 7 to 14 years of contracting the condition. The information flow between the brain and the rest of the body is disrupted in patients with multiple sclerosis.
The immune system attacks the protective sheath that ensures proper nerve fiber function. The severity of the disease can vary drastically. Some patients will go their whole lives without any symptoms, while others will not be able to enjoy a typical life. This autoimmune disorder is more rare than the others with fewer than 200,000 cases newly diagnosed each year.
Systemic Lupus Erythematosus
This autoimmune disease is characterized by the immune system attacking its own tissues and organs. The immune system creates chronic inflammation in various systems throughout the body, including joints, the heart, lungs, skin, and more. It tends to be a localized condition that affects only certain parts of the body, but it can cause inflammation throughout the body
Lupus more commonly affects women as compared to men. Patients typically have to manage their symptoms of the condition as they come and go. A majority of patients are able to enjoy their lives with Lupus, as long as they properly manage their condition.
Type 1 Diabetes
Type 1 diabetes is a chronic condition where the pancreas does not produce enough insulin in order to control blood sugar levels. Insulin is an important hormone that allows sugar to enter cells in order to create energy. Without this the body cannot function properly. The high levels of sugar in the blood stream cause excessive urination, dehydration,and can potentially damage tissue throughout the body.
In type 1 diabetes, the immune system attacks beta cells in the pancreas that are responsible for the creation of insulin. Patients with type 1 diabetes may have natural killer cells that are atypical from patients without the condition. Usually, there is some type of triggering event, such as an allergic reaction or virus that creates the condition in the body.
Now that we have a bit more of an understanding of autoimmune diseases, let’s attempt to understand the cause of many of these conditions.
What Causes An Autoimmune Disease?
Autoimmune diseases have baffled the medical community for some time. Researchers have debated the exact cause of autoimmune diseases for some time. The medical community still
does not have an exact answer for what causes an autoimmune disease, but they have a much more solid understanding of how an autoimmune disease unfolds.
Unfortunately, your family history plays a large part in the chances that you develop an autoimmune disorder. Certain genes increase the chances of a patient developing an autoimmune disorder. There is not just one gene that causes the development of an autoimmune disorder, but multiple.
Some patients will have the necessary genes that put them at more of a risk of developing an autoimmune disorder. Genes alone are not responsible for the development of an autoimmune disorder; there has to be a trigger.
Typically, autoimmune disorders require some type of external event in order to manifest themselves. When the immune system creates a response, the immune response typically fades away once the infection has been cleared from the body. The immune system may be continuing to play defense even when the pathogen has been eliminated from the body.
Researchers have noted that patients who recover from strep throat also have the tendency to develop psoriasis. The trigger does not necessarily have to be a disease, it can be as simple as an allergic reaction to anything. An extremely stressful event could also end up creating the environment necessary for the development of an autoimmune disease.
Some researchers believe that the increase in the number of autoimmune disorders is due to the environmental changes throughout society. This is difficult to study and even more difficult to prove. The medical community may have just gotten better at categorizing and diagnosing these diseases, but the fact is that autoimmune disorders are continuing to rise.
As the medical community develops more of an understanding of autoimmune disease, researchers will be able to create therapies that can treat these conditions. More information and research around autoimmune diseases have brought up the discussion that natural killer cells may play a part in the development of various autoimmune diseases. But before we make the connection between natural killer cells and autoimmune diseases, let’s discuss what natural killer cells do in the body.
Natural Killer Cells
Natural killer cells may sound like they would be harmful, but they play an integral part of the immune system. You can think of natural killer cells as the first line of defense in the immune system. These cells are part of the innate immune system. The innate immune system is the part of the immune system that reacts to an antigen within hours of its presence in the body.
Instead of having to wait around for the immune system to prepare a response to potential pathogens or foreign invaders, natural killer cells can act without any input from the immune system. They are called natural killer cells for this reason. They have the ability to naturally kill cells of foreign agents in the body.
Natural killer cells recognize specific antigens in the body and then will release cytotoxic components in order to kill the target cell. Natural killer cells can also release factors that call certain immune cells to come to fight the antigen. Natural killer cells can call T and B lymphocytes to the site of the infection. These two methods enable natural killer cells to fight off a variety of potential pathogens.
But, how could natural killer cells play a role in a patient developing an autoimmune disorder? Just like any other system in the body, the immune system can malfunction in a way that creates unintended consequences.
Natural Killer Cells & Autoimmune Diseases
When natural killer cells are performing as they should in the immune system, then a patient has a lower chance of developing an autoimmune disease. When natural killer cells begin to malfunction, they may actually contribute to various autoimmune diseases. This is not always the case, however.Researchers have found that in some autoimmune disorders, natural killer cells are actively preventing disease progression.
Natural killer cells may be actually attacking joints, organs, and tissues throughout and creating the inflammatory environment that is consistent with autoimmune disorders. Researchers believe that autoimmune disorders are primarily caused by T and B lymphocytes, but now believe that natural killer cells play a more significant role. Natural killer cells can induce a secondary immune response after the first infection settles down.
When a patient fights off a pathogen, there is a group of natural killer cells called memory natural killer cells. Memory natural killer cells are specific cells that are targeted to kill a specific antigen. This type of natural killer cell stays dominant within various locations in the body, ready to be called upon again if the body encounters the previously destroyed pathogen.
Normally this works perfectly and the memory natural killer cells will only be called upon when the antigen is detected again. However, this process could potentially misfire. The trigger in the immune system could potentially release memory natural killer cells and end up causing an autoimmune disorder. This type of natural killer cell could attack tissues in the body while there is not an antigen present.
There are multiple types of natural killer cells present throughout the body. Some researchers believe that one type of natural killer cell is responsible for the development of some autoimmune disorders and that another type of natural killer cell plays a part in the continued effects of the disease.
Natural killer cell contribution to autoimmune disease development and progression is not yet fully understood. This area of research still needs more development in order to better understand how natural killer cells affect autoimmune disorders. But, researchers have learned a great deal. Even though natural killer cells may contribute to various autoimmune diseases, they also may have the potential to solve those same issues.
Natural Killer Cell Therapy For Autoimmune Diseases
Natural killer cell therapy has been an effective, promising treatment for various forms of cancer for the past decade or so. In this form of treatment, T-cells are engineered with specific chimeric antigen receptors. These receptors are engineered in a way that will only recognize specific molecules on the surface of tumor cells. The receptors can then destroy the tumor cells and reduce or completely eliminate the tumor.
Recent research suggests that natural killer cells may be used in a similar manner for various autoimmune diseases. Researchers at Children’s Hospital Cincinnati found that engineered natural killer cells may be able to eliminate the underlying cause of the disease lupus. They are hopeful that this therapy can be further studied in order to alleviate patients with this condition.
Researchers believe that T-follicular helper (TFH) cells are the main cause of the autoimmune disease lupus. The issue with other forms of therapy that have been researched is that they eliminate the healthy T-cells in the immune system. The unhealthy T-cells are eliminated, but unfortunately the side effects of many forms of therapy are too severe.
The researchers at Children’s Cincinnati took natural killer cells and engineered them in a way that they only targeted the problematic T-follicular helper cells. The study found that in human cells in a laboratory that the engineered natural killer cells were able to target and eliminate the malfunctioning T-follicular helper cells. The same concept was demonstrated in a humanized mouse model of the disease.
Engineered natural killer cell therapies could provide relief for patients with autoimmune diseases by eliminating the problematic cells in the immune system that are causing the damage. Engineering natural killer cells may not be the only way that the medical community can utilize these powerful cells, simply replacing bad natural killer cells with good ones could have similar effects.
Waiting for a natural killer cell therapy is not an option for many patients who are suffering from an autoimmune disorder. Researchers believe that there are methods that patients may be able to utilize themselves in order to increase the number of healthy natural killer cells in the body. These healthy natural killer cells can reduce the inflammation that is present in an autoimmune disease environment.
Increasing Natural Killer Cell Levels
Even though natural killer cells may be the cause of several autoimmune diseases, they also could reverse the course of the disease. It may seem counterintuitive to increase the number of natural killer cells, as they may have started the development of an autoimmune disorder. However, some researchers also believe that replacing malfunctioning natural killer cells with functioning natural killer cells could be another viable alternative treatment method.
The problematic natural killer cells would no longer be present to create the inflammatory environment that created the autoimmune disorder. Additionally, improving the level of healthy natural killer cells in the body may improve a patient’s ability to fight off certain diseases and conditions. Researchers have theorized a few methods that patients may be able to utilize in order to improve their natural killer cell levels.
Probiotics are typically thought of as a potential treatment to improve gut health. However, a large part of the immune system is present in the gut. The gut relies on a diverse set of bacteria in order to maintain its health. Introducing new types of bacteria to the gut could improve how the immune system responds to certain events. The new bacteria may be able to reduce inflammation in the affected areas of the body.
One study found that a certain type of probiotic may be effective in increasing natural killer cell levels. A probiotic called Bacillus coagulans may improve natural killer cell levels. The researchers found that patients who took this probiotic had elevated levels of natural killer cells present in their body. Someday treating an autoimmune disorder could be as simple as taking a probiotic.
Another proposed method to improve natural killer cell activity is by changing a patient's lifestyle habits. Patients who deal with chronic stress often have lower levels of natural killer cell activity as compared to their peers. Lowering stress levels can improve natural killer cell levels throughout the body.
Some researchers have found that eating nutritious foods, such as blueberries, Maitake mushroom, Reishi mushroom, and garlic. These foods can potentially increase the natural killer cell level in the body. Increasing aerobic exercise levels generally tends to lead to higher levels of natural killer cells present in the body. The additional oxygen and nutrients flowing through the bloodstream could help activate natural killer cells.
Lifestyle changes have generally been found to improve symptoms in patients with various autoimmune disorders. Researchers believe that improved health has led to the decreased symptom levels, but the natural killer cell level may be the reason behind the decreased symptoms.
Stem Cells And Natural Killer Cells
Stem cells are the basis for most of the cells that are found in the body. Researchers have been able to create natural killer cells from stem cells in the laboratory. Patients may be able to utilize stem cell therapy in order to reduce their autoimmune disorder symptoms.
An intravenous injection of stem cells into the bloodstream may be able to replenish the level of natural killer cells throughout the body. The stem cells that are introduced to the body can differentiate into the correct natural killer cells. These natural killer cells may be able to reduce the level of autoimmune disorder symptoms in various patients.
Stem cell therapy has been shown to improve patient outcomes in a variety of autoimmune disorders, such as arthritis. Researchers are not entirely sure why stem cells have this ability to reduce autoimmune disorder symptoms. Stem cells have anti-inflammatory properties, as they release a number of healing factors into the environment that they are present in.
One theory could be that stem cells are differentiating into problem-free natural killer cells. These natural killer cells do not have the same problems that the disease-causing natural killer cells have. The body can then utilize the new natural killer cells to reduce inflammation levels in the target area.
Natural killer cells have the potential to revolutionize how the medical community treats patients with autoimmune disorders. Several companies around the world are investigating the use of natural killer cells to fight various autoimmune diseases. They believe that cell therapy is the future of medicine. If the body has all it needs to fight various diseases, then simply placing the right cell in the right place at the right time could have huge therapeutic benefits.
Reach out to your healthcare provider today to learn more about potential treatment options for your autoimmune disease. Conventional medicine may not always work for every patient’s individual case. Natural killer cell therapy could become an effective therapy for various autoimmune disorders sometime in the near future.