Autoimmune disorders occur when the immune system malfunctions and the body attacks its own healthy cells and tissues. Many autoimmune diseases cause damage to only one tissue, for example, the central nervous system in multiple sclerosis, and the pancreas in type I diabetes. Other diseases affect many different organs, such as the skin, kidney, and blood vessels in systemic lupus erythematosus. There are dozens of different autoimmune disorders that collectively affect up to 15 million Americans; many are chronic and debilitating, and significantly affect the patient’s quality of life.
When our immune system functions normally, it ignores healthy cells and focuses on destroying those that might damage the body, such as cells infected with viruses, or cancer cells. When this system goes wrong, our white blood cells mistake healthy cells for dangerous ones, and this triggers a complex series of events that cause death and destruction to our tissues. In some diseases, this immune attack comes and goes, and symptoms may flare up and then recede for a while. In other diseases, the tissue destruction is continuous and may require strong medications to suppress the immune system. We do not yet understand what causes autoimmunity. A disease often starts after an infection, so our immune system may simply confuse normal components of our body with parts of a virus or bacteria. We also know that inherited genes are important, because close family members may suffer from the same or different autoimmune diseases.
Torrey Pines Institute researchers are making significant progress in understanding many aspects of these complicated diseases. They are applying this information to understand how the diseases arise, and to develop innovative new methods to treat some of the most devastating autoimmune disorders, including type I diabetes, multiple sclerosis, and rheumatoid arthritis.
Principal Investigators are working on the following challenges in the area of Autoimmune Disorders: