University of Tartu researchers study how external factors lead to immune-mediated diseases

Immune-mediated diseases form a large group of diseases of more than one hundred diagnoses. These diseases continue to be researched by scientists and doctors across the world. We must not overlook any other medical problem while fighting against coronavirus, emphasised Professor of Immunology of the University of Tartu Raivo Uibo, who is leading a research group that contributes to research into the onset of immune-mediated diseases as a part of the major Horizon 2020 initiative HEDIMED.

Immune-mediated diseases are caused by an abnormal activity within the body’s immune system. Betterknown examples include allergies and autoimmune diseases, such as type 1 diabetes. While in the case of allergies we usually know the particular allergen that causes the allergic reaction in the body, in the case of type 1 diabetes, the factor that triggers the whole chain of the disease is still unknown. This also applies to other autoimmune diseases, in the case of which the immune system mistakenly starts to attack healthy cells or tissues. We still do not know what leads to such reactions in the body.

Professor of Immunology of the University of Tartu Raivo Uibo said that in developed countries, 5–7% of the population have autoimmune diseases and they may occur in both adults and children. “Rheumatoid arthritis, for instance, is a rather common autoimmune disease in adults, while type 1 diabetes may develop already in a one-year-old. Other examples include thyroiditis, psoriasis, coeliac disease, the relatively rare lupus, etc.,” explained Uibo.

Coeliac disease is mostly triggered by the wheat protein, gluten. The disease often starts in childhood, but the first onset can also be observed in adults. “30–40% of Caucasians have a genetic predisposition to the onset of coeliac disease, but it occurs in only up to 1% of the population. This is why we must study the additional factors that bring about the disease in some people,” said Professor Uibo.

Major international initiative

To research all that, medical researchers of the University of Tartu participate in a large international research project HEDIMED that undertakes to analyse factors in the external environment that lead to type I diabetes, coeliac disease and childhood allergies, particularly asthma. This is done in cooperation with 22 academic and industrial partners from Europe and the USA. Along with eight other initiatives, HEDIMED belongs to the Human Exposome Network of the European Union.

“In this study, we try to analyse everything we can. We want to know all possible external factors that could affect our immune system and lead to immune-mediated diseases. While doing that, we also keep the persons’ genetic background in mind,” explained Uibo.

Thanks to extensive data, researchers hope to reach a comprehensive understanding that can be used for giving recommendations to reduce the incidence of diseases both in particular countries and globally. 

Looking for the cure

Among other topics, the researchers are trying to find which medication could be used to curb the diseases. “Finnish researchers, for instance, are currently developing a vaccine against enteroviruses. In children, this could reduce infection with enteroviruses that have a role in the onset of diabetes,” said the professor. He believes this vaccine is very much needed, as the incidence of type 1 diabetes in children increases by 3% on average every year. “So far, this process has been incessant, but the researchers believe it could be curbed by reducing a certain type of enterovirus infections.” 

Other diseases must not be overlooked due to coronavirus

7–10% of the world’s population suffers from various forms of diabetes and approximately 10–11% of the global health care resources are spent on diabetes only. “I want to underline that no other medical problem has disappeared due to coronavirus,” emphasised Uibo. 

The article is based on an interview by Madis Ligi with Professor of Immunology of the University of Tartu, Academician Raivo Uibo in the programme “Kuue samba taga” on Raadio Kuku.

Further information:
Raivo Uibo
Professor of Immunology of the University of Tartu, Academician
510 5079