A finding by Hilde Cheroutre, Ph.D., a leading biomedical researcher for the La Jolla Institute for Allergy and Immunology, was chosen by "Nature Medicine" magazine as one of the 10 most important advances in the biomedical field in 2007.
The magazine said Cheroutre's work may lead to advances in the treatment of many autoimmune and inflammatory diseases.
"Every year they select among the millions of papers that are published, and they select the most advanced papers," Cheroutre said. "Our study was selected as one of the 10, which is quite an honor."
Cheroutre's findings deal with the role that retinoic acid, which is a derivative of vitamin A when it is broken down by the body, plays in combating inflammation. Retinoic acid also plays a role in regulating the immune system.
The lab run by Cheroutre was the first to show how retinoic acid can increase anti-inflammatory cells in lab mice, and they were also able to prove that it is able to decrease inflammatory cells. If retinoic acid can eventually be shown in further studies to either increase or decrease inflammation in humans, it will have the potential to treat many diseases.
Cheroutre described autoimmune diseases, which "Nature Medicine" magazine highlighted, as the body turning on itself. This can often result in inflammatory diseases such as multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis.
"These are all diseases caused by the immune system not functioning," she said.
Vitamin A, which people typically get large amounts of through their daily diet, is broken down by the body and turned into retinoic acid. "The body breaks vitamin A down into smaller substances that are taken into the body, and we found that one of those derivatives is retinoic acid. And retinoic acid is a very powerful tool," said Cheroutre. "That gives us the opportunity to intervene with people with inflammatory diseases."
It is her hope that her research on retinoic acid, which is still in the very early stages, will lead to the development of drugs to treat autoimmune diseases. The range of diseases that the use of retinoic acid could potentially treat is wide, from arthritis, multiple sclerosis, colitis, psoriasis, celiac disease, diabetes and inflammatory bowel disease. Retinoic acid is already used to treat certain types of leukemia.
"These are just some of the inflammatory diseases that could be controlled by this," she said. "It opens up a whole new world of opportunity."
However, because the potential number of diseases that it could treat is so large, much research will be needed to make the drugs specific to the disease they are supposed to treat.
"You want to treat people for one thing but not a million other things," Cheroutre said.
Cheroutre specializes in research in the mucosal tissue, tissue that comes into contact with the environment outside the body, such as the skin, mouth, lungs and the intestines. She said that this is a radical departure from what most immune system biomedical researchers focus on, because most research of the immune system focuses on inside the stomach. Her area of study is also one that she is pioneering, because few before her have looked at the mucosal system in depth, and she is considered one of the world's leading researchers in that particular field.
"We know very little about the mucosal system," she said. "Mucus is one of the barriers that the immune system is using for protection."
Cheroutre also described the mucosal system as "the front line of attack," because it is one of the first barriers a pathogen must cross before it infects someone.
Cheroutre, in addition to running a laboratory of 12 scientists at the La Jolla Institute for Allergy and Immunology, is an adjunct professor at the UCSD School of Medicine. She was educated in her native Belgium before coming to the United States for her post-doctoral degree at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. She worked as a researcher at UCLA before moving to La Jolla. Her husband is the director of the Institute and is also a biomedical researcher. The couple has three boys.
"I do have my hands full," she said.
As for what motivates her to devote her life to biomedical research, she said her mission is to improve the quality of people's lives through better health.
"You want to see the end result, which is healthy people," she said.