Groundbreaking vaccine delivers long-lasting protection from rheumatoid arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease that affects up to 1% of the global population and approximately 1.3 million people in the US.

[Jan. 1, 2024: JJ Shavit, The Brighter Side of News]

The protein-based vaccine shows significant promise in preventing rheumatoid arthritis and improving bone quality — suggesting long-term benefits following immunization. (CREDIT: Creative Commons)

University of Toledo researchers have made a significant breakthrough in the study of rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disease that affects up to 1% of the global population and approximately 1.3 million people in the United States. Led by Dr. Ritu Chakravarti, an assistant professor in the University’s College of Medicine and Life Sciences, the team has developed an experimental vaccine that shows significant promise in preventing the disease.

The findings were detailed in a paper published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. According to the report, the vaccine, which uses a protein called 14-3-3 zeta, promotes a strong and immediate response from the body’s innate immune system, providing long-lasting protection against rheumatoid arthritis.

One of the most common autoimmune diseases, rheumatoid arthritis occurs when the body’s immune system attacks and breaks down healthy tissue, most notably the lining of joints in the hands, wrists, ankles, and knees. The disease can cause severe pain, swelling, stiffness, and decreased mobility. Currently, there is no cure for the disease, and treatments can have serious side effects, including making patients more vulnerable to infection.

Chakravarti, who has studied the protein 14-3-3 zeta and its role in immune pathologies for years, said that the team initially believed that the protein might be a trigger for rheumatoid arthritis. However, after removing the protein using gene-editing technology, they found that it caused severe early onset arthritis in animal models.

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This unexpected finding led the team to develop a protein-based vaccine using purified 14-3-3 zeta protein grown in a bacterial cell. The vaccine was found to not only suppress the development of arthritis but also significantly improve bone quality, suggesting that there should be long-term benefits following immunization.

“Much to our happy surprise, the rheumatoid arthritis totally disappeared in animals that received a vaccine,” Chakravarti said. “Sometimes there is no better way than serendipity. We happened to hit a wrong result, but it turned out to be the best result. Those kinds of scientific discoveries are very important in this field.”

The team has filed for a patent on their discovery and is seeking pharmaceutical industry partners to support safety and toxicity studies in hopes of establishing a preclinical trial.

Dr. Ritu Chakravarti, assistant professor in The University of Toledo College of Medicine and Life Sciences. (CREDIT: Daniel Miller | The University of Toledo)

“We have not made any really big discoveries toward treating or preventing rheumatoid arthritis in many years,” Chakravarti said. “Our approach is completely different. This is a vaccine-based strategy based on a novel target that we hope can treat or prevent rheumatoid arthritis. The potential here is huge.”

According to the report, rheumatoid arthritis is currently treated primarily with corticosteroids, broad-scale immunosuppressive drugs, or newer, more targeted biologics that target a specific inflammatory process. While those therapeutics can alleviate pain and slow the progression of the disease, they can also make patients more vulnerable to infection and can be costly.

KO rats exhibit severe and early IA. (A) The WT (n = 8) and KO animals (n = 8) were subjected to PIA. The experiment was repeated at least three times. Representative body weight gain and IA score during PIA are shown. (B) Representative pictures showing inflamed joint in WT versus KO animals are shown. (C) The 3D reconstruction of μCT scans of ankle and knee joints are shown. (Scale bar: 1 mm.) (CREDIT: University of Toledo)

The potential of the vaccine-based strategy developed by the University of Toledo researchers is significant, as it could offer a safer and more effective treatment option for those living with rheumatoid arthritis.

The team’s discovery is a testament to the importance of serendipitous scientific discoveries and the need for continued research into the prevention and treatment of autoimmune diseases.

Symptoms of Rheumatoid Arthritis

According to the Mayo Clinic, signs and symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis may include:

  • Tender, warm, swollen joints

  • Joint stiffness that is usually worse in the mornings and after inactivity

  • Fatigue, fever and loss of appetite

Early rheumatoid arthritis tends to affect your smaller joints first — particularly the joints that attach your fingers to your hands and your toes to your feet.

As the disease progresses, symptoms often spread to the wrists, knees, ankles, elbows, hips and shoulders. In most cases, symptoms occur in the same joints on both sides of your body.

About 40% of people who have rheumatoid arthritis also experience signs and symptoms that don't involve the joints. Areas that may be affected include:

  • Skin

  • Eyes

  • Lungs

  • Heart

  • Kidneys

  • Salivary glands

  • Nerve tissue

  • Bone marrow

  • Blood vessels

Rheumatoid arthritis signs and symptoms may vary in severity and may even come and go. Periods of increased disease activity, called flares, alternate with periods of relative remission — when the swelling and pain fade or disappear. Over time, rheumatoid arthritis can cause joints to deform and shift out of place.

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Joseph Shavit
Joseph ShavitSpace, Technology and Medical News Writer
Joseph Shavit is the head science news writer with a passion for communicating complex scientific discoveries to a broad audience. With a strong background in both science, business, product management, media leadership and entrepreneurship, Joseph possesses the unique ability to bridge the gap between business and technology, making intricate scientific concepts accessible and engaging to readers of all backgrounds.