We’re not quite sure what to make of the news that came from Switzerland in early August. Researchers at ETH Zurich say they have developed a drug that cures rheumatoid arthritis in mice. They’re planning to start clinical trials on humans next year.
Boom. Just like that.
Do we dare to hope that this is for real? Or do we figure if it’s that easy everyone would already be doing it? Maybe a little of both.
What the researchers did was fuse two biological components together to create an “armed antibody” that would essentially target and heal—or seek and destroy, if you prefer—arthritis at the affected site. One component is IL-4, or interleukin 4, which is produced by the body’s immune system and has been shown to protect mice with arthritis against cartilage and bone damage. The other component is the antibody F8, which targets the site affected by arthritis.
Says Teresa Hemmerle, a co-author of the study: “As a result of the combination with the antibody, IL-4 reaches the site of the disease when the fusion molecule is injected into the body. It allows us to concentrate the active substance at the site of the disease.”
Dexamethasone, an anti-inflammatory used to treat arthritis, was administered along with the “fusion molecule” treatment.
The experiments were designed and conducted by Hemmerle, Fabia Doll, and Dario Neri at ETH Zurich. The results were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) as “Antibody-based delivery of IL-4 to the neovasculature cures mice with arthritis.”
Not many people could ignore a headline that includes the words “cures arthritis,” which is why this news was splashed all over the Internet in myriad languages.
Headlines aside, however, we’re not kicking up our heels just yet.
ETH Zurich (Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zurich) is a university that specializes in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—the STEM disciplines every parent of a high schooler knows well. ETH Zurich has been specializing in them since 1855. Its alumni include Wilhelm Röntgen (who invented the X-ray) and Albert Einstein. It counts 21 Nobel Laureates among its alumni and faculty. Definitely an institution worthy of respect.
Other research teams at ETH Zurich have conducted similar studies into antibody-cytokine fusion proteins (also known as immunocytokines). For example, a 2011 study examined the fusion of F8 with IL-10 to inhibit endometriosis in mice. There’s exciting potential for use of a “disease-homing antibody” such as F8 that naturally delivers treatment where it’s required.
Lots of people are and will be studying these possibilities. Many of them will be Ph.D. candidates and recent Ph.D.s, such as Hemmerle and Doll, the authors of this study. (Dario Neri is a professor of pharmaceutical sciences at ETH Zurich.)
The conflict of interest statement at the end of the PNAS article should also be noted: “Dario Neri is a cofounder and shareholder of Philogen SpA (Siena, Italy), the company that owns the F8 antibody. Teresa Hemmerle is a consultant for Philochem AG (Otelfingen, Switzerland).”
Philochem is the research and development arm of Philogen. On its list of medications in clinical development, Philogen includes two for rheumatoid arthritis, one that bonds F8 and IL-10 and one that bonds F8 with IL-4. http://www.philogen.com/products.html
Taking all of this into account, we wish there had been some independent corroboration and validation of these results before the words “cures arthritis” worked their way into a headline. Especially since the authors say, “To our knowledge, this [study] is the first report of durable and complete regressions in mice with established RA.”
Did this team find the cure for arthritis? Oh boy, we hope so. (No one hopes so more!) If they didn’t yet, we hope someday they will. Stuff like this takes a lot of work. If it was easy, everyone would already be doing it.