Regulating Immunity: Toxicologists seek novel gene therapies

OSU immunotoxicologist Nancy Kerkvliet and research technician Sam Bradford use a flow cytometer to analyze cell response to chemical exposure. (Photo: Lynn Ketchum)

By Lee Anna Sherman

Dioxin, the chemical pollutant made infamous by Vietnam-era defoliant Agent Orange, has long been known to suppress immune function in humans and other animals. Surprisingly, this dangerous side effect has a scientific silver lining. While studying the toxin’s health effects, researchers discovered the genetic pathway to immune system malfunction. For people who would actually benefit from suppressed immunity — those suffering from autoimmune and allergic diseases — this clue may lead to better therapies.

With $1.8 million in funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, OSU toxicologist Nancy Kerkvliet and colleague Siva Kolluri are investigating a genetic mechanism that turns immunity on and off — the aryl hydrocarbon (AHR) receptor — in search of a non-toxic compound that activates immune-cell regulation. If found, this compound could lead to a new generation of treatment options for victims of lupus, type-1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis and other diseases.

Learn more about OSU’s ARRA-funded research in human health, climate change, the oceans and education here.