When inflammation goes wrong

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Helena Erlandsson Harris, professor of rheumatological inflammation research, is conducting research into the chemical signals in the body that initiate and increase an inflammation. The goal is to contribute to the development of new drugs that can help people with chronic or acute inflammation and give them better life quality.

Inflammation is the body's defence against various external threats, such as bacteria and viruses. But sometimes inflammation creates serious problems instead of solving them. This is the case with autoimmune diseases­ such as rheumatism, but also with completely different conditions, such as strokes. Helena Erlandsson Harris is researching into the mechanisms that control inflammation, and how these chemical processes can be attenuated to help patients. Above all she is interested in the protein HMGB1, a substance which the body uses as a chemical alarm signal.

"If we know how the signalling process takes place, we will also have good chances of intervening and breaking the vicious circle," she explains. "We are beginning to understand more and more. Among other things, we have recently discovered that HMGB1 occurs in three different structures or ‘tastes’. We are now particularly interested in how these are linked to different inflammatory events.”

Even though the research is concentrated on rheumatism, the results are relevant for the understanding and treatment of other diseases such as lupus, myositis, MS, and blood poisoning.

"We already have good studies that indicate the inhibition of HMGB1 could work as an effective treatment of both rheumatism and blood poisoning."

Helena Erlandsson Harris is also coordinator for the European research project Counterstroke, which aims to identify potential new drugs to reduce brain damage after strokes by inhibiting HMGB1. When a stroke occurs there is also detrimental inflammation that causes tissue damage in the body. The collaboration project includes four academic research groups in Sweden, England, Germany and Italy, as well as two research companies in Sweden and Italy.

Text: Anders Nilsson, first published in "Från Cell till Samhälle", 2014.