Their original research was focused on how to treat a condition called skin graft versus host disease (GvHD). It affects some people who get a stem cell transplant, through which you basically get a new immune system. GvHD is a side effect of the transplant process in which the person's new immune system attacks their body, often leading to severe skin reactions.
So what do that condition, eczema, and RA have in common? They're all linked to inflammation and a haywire immune response.
Ingredients in umbilical cord blood have properties that lower inflammation and suppress the immune system. But for a long time experts didn't know what these ingredients were. The scientists who made the new discovery were looking at whether certain proteins found in cord blood might have these properties.
The proteins are called soluble NKG2D ligands. They disable natural "killer cells" the immune system uses to fight off things it sees as foreign to the body. So, they may prevent the mother and baby from rejecting each other. The scientists have also found that these proteins can be used to disable natural killer cells in other parts of the body.
A Big Breakthrough?
"Currently, conditions such as eczema and rheumatoid arthritis are hard to manage, so this accidental discovery could potentially offer a major breakthrough," says Aurore Saudemont, PhD, senior research scientist at Anthony Nolan, a U.K.-based blood cancer charity.
"As well as helping to treat blood cancer patients suffering with the effects of GvHD, these new findings could eventually lead to treatments that could eradicate symptoms of eczema, rheumatoid arthritis, and even alopecia areata without causing any major side effects.
"This could be life-changing for patients, as their symptoms, such as inflammation, itching, and redness, can be a serious problem."
The study is published in the European Journal of Immunology.
Further research, and the involvement of a pharmaceutical company, is needed before a cream can be developed, but the scientists say they hope it could be tested on the first patients within 5 years.