Scientists from the Imperial College of London have identified a protein that functions as a “master switch” for inflammation in the body.  The discovery can potentially lead to new drug target capable of tackling a slate of inflammatory conditions–as well as offering a new pathway to bolstering the human immune system.

Autoimmune diseases are generally treated with immunosuppression drugs that can decrease the immune response. Many patients who suffer from rheumatoid arthritis are treated with tumor necrosis factor (TNF) inhibitors, however about one-third of them show the negative response to such treatment. Investigators are keenly aware of the critical need for the development of more effective treatment options.

During their study, the London researchers found that a protein known as IRF5 functions as a molecular switch that controls whether white blood cells called macrophages will promote or suppress inflammation. Blocking the production of IRF5 in macrophages could be an effective way of treating a broad range of autoimmune diseases including rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, lupus and multiple sclerosis. In addition, boosting IRF5 levels may prove effective in treating people who have compromised or damaged immune systems.

“Our results show that IRF5 is the master switch in a key set of immune cells, which determines the profile of genes that get turned on in those cells,” said Irina Udalova, senior researcher on the study, “This is really exciting because it means that if we can design molecules that interfere with IRF5 function, it could give us new anti-inflammatory treatments for a wide variety of conditions.”

According to estimates made by The National Institute of Health, autoimmune diseases affect as many as 23.5 million people in America alone. These extremely painful diseases are the tenth leading cause of death in women under 64 and the number of cases continues to increase with each year.