Why does the body turn against itself?

The secrets of autoimmune diseases are being tackled on the Meilahti Campus, thanks to major funding from the European Research Council and Satu Mustjoki.

Autoimmune diseases, characterised by the body’s defence systems turning against its own tissues, are a difficult adversary for doctors to beat.

The origin mechanisms of many autoimmune diseases are unknown, and there are no targeted drug delivery systems for them. This means that treatment must involve medication that suppresses the body’s own immune system, which in turn leads to a wide spectrum of unwanted side effects.

White cell populations under scrutiny

The European Research Council ERC has granted more than two million euros in funding to Satu Mustjoki, Professor in Clinical Chemistry and Hematology, for her research on the origin mechanisms of autoimmune diseases.

Mustjoki and her group are examining different white cell populations in autoimmune patients and trying to find enlarged lymphocyte clones which may turn against the body’s own tissues – this means subgroups of white cells which have all divided from a single cell.

Could virus infections cause mutations?

“Our hypothesis is that the genetic changes of these lymphocyte clones influence the way cells behave and, consequently, how autoimmune diseases are generated.”

Focusing on the underlying reasons for mutations, the research is based on the leukaemia studies of Mustjoki’s group, and their work involves both patient samples and animal models. The mutations in the samples are examined using state-of-the-art technology.

“For example, we study the contribution of viral infections to the generation of mutations,” Mustjoki explains.

More targeted medicine

Once we understand the origins of autoimmune diseases better, the hope is that we will be able to develop more targeted medications for them.

“That is, of course, our ultimate goal,” Mustjoki states.

After an incomplete cancer treatment, the body’s defence mechanisms should be activated.

As a leukaemia researcher, she has already grappled with the other end of the immune disorder spectrum. After an incomplete cancer treatment, the body’s defence mechanisms should be activated and made to attack the remaining cancer cells, even though the cancer does its best to lull the immune system into inactivity.

Mustjoki received the highly competitive five-year Consolidator Grant from the ERC. Through these grants, the EU supports the most talented researchers who are in the process of consolidating their own independent research groups or programmes. Mustjoki’s research group works in the haematological research unit of the Hospital District of Helsinki and Uusimaa and the University of Helsinki.

In autoimmune diseases, the body’s immune system is too hostile, while in cancers, it is dormant. Professor Satu Mustjoki is an expert in both problems.