Scientists have discovered that an old cancer drug can be used to prevent rejection of transplanted tissue.
Researchers at Lund University believe their discovery could lead to new treatment for both transplant patients and those with autoimmune diseases.
"Our group was studying the effects of the old tumour drug Zebularine, developed in the US in the 1960s, and by chance we discovered that it had completely unexpected effects on the immune system," said Leif Salford, Senior Professor of Neurosurgery at the Rausing Laboratory, Lund University.
"It turned out that Zebularine has the ability to subdue the reaction of the body's immune system. This could be important in situations where tissue or organs are transplanted.
"We also think it could be used to curb the body's attacks on its own tissue in autoimmune diseases, for instance type 1 diabetes or rheumatoid arthritis," said researcher Dr Henrietta Nittby.
In studies on animals, the researchers used rats that were made diabetic. The researchers transplanted the islets of Langerhans - cell groups in the pancreas producing insulin - from healthy rats from another kind of rat into those with diabetes.
The diabetic rats were divided into two groups; one group were treated with Zebularine and the other, the control group, did not receive any treatment. The diabetic rats that were treated with Zebularine survived for a significantly longer period than the untreated rats.
"It is very interesting that we only treated them with Zebularine for two weeks, but the effects of the treatment could be observed throughout the 90-day follow-up period," Nittby said.
"The findings are very exciting and are a sign that the immune system was not just generally suppressed, but that the treatment was more targeted. Neither did we see any signs of side-effects," Nittby added.
The researchers are now working intensively to further refine the treatment. The next step is to teach certain cells in the immune system - the dendritic cells - to accept certain specific proteins using the Zebularine treatment. This would mean that the treatment could be targeted even more. The study was published in the journal PLOS ONE.