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Genetic study offers vital clues on immune responses

Fresh insights into the way genes communicate with each other could lead to new treatments for diseases of the immune system.

New research has found that the network by which genes interact with each other is much more complicated than previously thought.

The study opens up a new field of scientific research that could lead to treatments for diseases such as myeloid leukaemia and arthritis. The findings are published in Nature Genetics.

The work has been carried out by scientists at the Roslin Institute at the University of Edinburgh, who are working as part of an international team of researchers.

The scientists focused on the immune system and examined the genes involved with white blood cells called macrophages.

When healthy, these cells cleanse the body of viruses and bacteria, but if they grow uncontrollably, they can turn against the body's own tissue to cause conditions such as multiple sclerosis, arthritis and emphysema.

It was previously thought that these cell growth processes were managed by a select group of master, or regulator, genes that give instructions to many other genes.

The latest findings show that instead there are hundreds of regulator genes, which all interact with each other to control cell development and growth.

The research explains why different people can develop a disease in different ways - scientists believe this may be because of variations in different parts of this genetic network.

The team hopes that identifying the weak spots in the gene network could provide clues on how to stop the growth of tumours or enable the growth of health cells.

This is a key focus of the work of the Roslin Institute, which recently became a part of The University of Edinburgh. Scientists plan to extend the project with new funding from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council to look at the way genes communicate to control immunity in livestock animals. A key member of the international team has now been recruited from Australia to continue the project in Scotland.

This research provides an incredible resource for the study of immunity and disease in humans and animals. "This study has effectively shown us where the brakes are that could stop or slow down diseases like cancer and multiple sclerosis. We genuinely believe this could lead to treatments and cures for many diseases of the immune system.

Professor David HumeDirector of the Roslin Institute at the University of EdinburghCitation role (optional)

The study was conducted as part of the FANTOM (Functional Annotation of the Mammalian cDNA) consortium, which involves scientists at The Roslin Institute of the University of Edinburgh, the Omics Science Center (OSC) of the RIKEN Yokohama Institute, Japan and a number of others from research centres and universities in Australia, Switzerland, Norway, South Africa, Sweden, Canada, Denmark, Italy, Germany, Singapore, and the United States.