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Gene variants associated with leukaemia can produce ‘rogue’ immune cells that drive autoimmune diseases, according to a new study from the Garvan Institute of Medical Research.

Scientists had previously noticed that leukaemia patients were also likely to develop an autoimmune disease, such as rheumatoid arthritis or aplastic anaemia. Research into this link revealed that immune cells called killer T cells — responsible for destroying harmful cells and pathogens — were a key player.

This new research provides insight into the role these killer T cells play in leukaemia and autoimmune disease. Gene variations affecting a protein that controls the growth of killer T cells can turn them rogue, tamoxifen for breast cancer prevention safety warning the researchers found.

“We showed that these rogue killer T cells are driving the autoimmunity. They’re probably one of the cell types most directly contributing to autoimmune disease,” says Dr Etienne Masle-Farquhar, a postdoctoral researcher in the Immunogenomics and Genomic Medicine Labs at Garvan.

“Our research also narrows down a few pathways that might be helpful in targeting these cells for future treatments,” he says.

The findings are published in the journal, Immunity.

Cancers can grow when tumour cells are not identified or destroyed by the immune system. Autoimmune diseases occur when the immune system attacks the body’s own cells, mistaking them for harmful or foreign cells.

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