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Charity appeal funds cutting-edge hepatitis study

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In July 2019, Robert Colvile launched a charity appeal to fund new research into autoimmune hepatitis, following the tragic death of his wife Andrea at the age of 40.

Thanks to donations from Robert and his supporters, the appeal has so far raised more than £120,000, enabling us to fund ground-breaking new research led by Dr Zania Stamataki from the University of Birmingham.

Andrea Colvile1 Andrea with her son, Alexander.

Autoimmune hepatitis (AIH) is a rare cause of long-term viral hepatitis in which the body’s immune system attacks and damages the liver. There are thought to be around 10,000 people living with autoimmune hepatitis in the UK, and although both men and women can develop the condition, it is more common in young women.

Existing treatments aim to reduce inflammation by suppressing the immune system, but this can also reduce the immune system’s ability to fight infection. It is not currently clear what causes the condition, who is most vulnerable, or whether anything can be done to prevent it.

Andrea Colvile developed the disease shortly after giving birth to her second son, Alexander. Steroids were used to contain the problem but after six months of treatment the damage to her liver became too severe for her to survive a transplant.

Due to inherent problems with current treatments for both viral and autoimmune hepatitis, new approaches are urgently needed.

Zania Stamataki Dr Zania Stamataki, University of Birmingham.

Dr Zania Stamataki’s study will investigate the impact of targeting a new biological phenomenon called enclysis in viral and autoimmune hepatitis (AIH).

In autoimmune disease, a misguided immune system recognises its own tissue as a foreign pathogen and launches a relentless attack to eliminate the threat (i.e. an overactive immune system). In viral liver disease, an ineffective immune system fails to clear the virus, which leads to persistent infection for life. Studies have shown that T-reg cells can impact the progression of both disease processes. So how does the liver regulate the regulators (T-reg cells)?

Dr Stamataki’s team have identified a new process that may answer this question. “We recently discovered that the main cells that make up 80 per cent of the liver, hepatocytes, actively engulf T-reg cells and destroy them. We called this new phenomenon enclysis, from the Greek word for enclosure, confinement and captivity. Indeed, we found increased enclysis in AIH compared to hepatitis B livers donated to research after transplantation. It is therefore possible that toggling enclysis may help improve both disease outcomes, and we have planned a series of experiments to test this hypothesis using human liver tissues.”

Researchers are exploring two clinical approaches aimed at restoring balance in the immune system: one where protective T-reg cells are isolated from AIH patients, expanded in the lab and injected back into patients, with the hope of dampening inflammation; and the other where immune cells are isolated from viral patients, activated and injected back into patients to fight the virus. Dr Stamataki’s study will focus on understanding how to improve and prolong the effectiveness of these immunotherapies for patient benefit.

To support Robert Colvile's charity appeal, visit his JustGiving page.

Everyone we spoke to told us that the Medical Research Foundation was the gold standard in terms of the quality of research they support, and the rigour with which they scrutinise applications. Their mission is to fund research into diseases that do not receive sufficient attention and this seemed to be absolutely the best and most cost-effective way to support vital research. Robert Colvile

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