Autoimmune Diseases

The immune system is the complex community of cells and proteins that usually fight infection or destroy diseased cells. Autoimmune diseases occur when the immune system attacks normal, healthy tissue.

Different autoimmune diseases affect different tissues, and they are caused by different underlying immune system defects. For example, in multiple sclerosis, the myelin sheaths that insulate nerves are damaged. Lupus may affect many different tissues, including the joints and skin. Rheumatoid arthritis results in swollen, stiff and painful joints, particularly in the hands and wrists. And in scleroderma, the skin is primarily affected, although the blood vessels, muscles and internal organs may also be damaged.

Fred Hutch researchers are working to understand why the immune system sometimes turns on healthy tissue. They are also harnessing a breakthrough cancer-fighting treatment to heal autoimmunity.

Autoimmune Disease Research

We are applying our deep knowledge of the immune system to better understand, prevent and treat autoimmune diseases. 

Bone Marrow and Blood Stem Cell Transplantation

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We pioneered the use of bone marrow transplants to cure leukemia. Now Hutch researchers study its use in autoimmunity.

The immune system is the source of autoimmune disease. So replacing a patient’s self-attacking immune system with healthy cells can reverse or alleviate their condition. Only patients with certain autoimmune diseases, particularly multiple sclerosis and scleroderma, undergo these kinds of treatments.

Patients with severe autoimmune disease can receive an autologous, or self-derived, transplant. Their own stem cells are isolated from their blood, then given back to replenish their immune system without the disease-causing cells. Alternatively, the transplanted stem cells can come from a healthy donor. 

Understanding the Causes of Autoimmunity

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Our investigators seek to understand the causes of autoimmunity.

Focusing particularly on scleroderma, multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis, Hutch scientists aim to untangle the role that microchimerism may play in autoimmunity.

Chimeras are a mix of cells from different individuals. The most common type, known as microchimerism of fetal origin, occurs as a result of pregnancy, when some of a fetus’ cells cross the placenta and take root in the mother’s body. Similarly, maternal cells often take up residence in a developing fetus. Every person is likely a chimera, at least harboring cells from their mother. A woman who has been pregnant can harbor cells of different origins, from her pregnancies as well as from her own mother.

Other Hutch investigators study the underlying cellular and molecular processes that go awry in autoimmunity.

Bone Marrow Transplant reunion

Bone Marrow and Blood Stem Cell Transplantation

We pioneered the use of bone marrow transplants to cure leukemia. Now our researchers are studying its use to treat autoimmune diseases.

Replacing a patient’s self-attacking immune system with healthy cells can reverse or alleviate certain autoimmune diseases, particularly multiple sclerosis and scleroderma.

Patients with severe autoimmune disease can receive an autologous, or self-derived, transplant. Their own stem cells are isolated from their blood, then given back to replenish their immune system without the disease-causing cells. Alternatively, the transplanted stem cells can come from a healthy donor. 

Alexandra Forsyth works in the Lee Nelson Lab

Understanding the Causes of Autoimmunity

Focusing particularly on scleroderma, multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis, our researchers seek to understand the causes of autoimmune diseases. Their investigations range from the underlying cellular and molecular processes that go awry in autoimmunity to the role of microchimerism, in which one individual has a small number of cells originating from a different individual.

The most common type of microchimerism, known as microchimerism of fetal origin, occurs as a result of pregnancy, when some of a fetus’ cells cross the placenta and take root in the mother’s body. Similarly, maternal cells often take up residence in a developing fetus. Every person likely harbors cells at least from their mother. A woman who has been pregnant can harbor cells of different origins, from her pregnancies as well as from her own mother.

Featured Research

J. Lee Nelson Lab

A mother’s cells persist in her child into adulthood, and cells of fetal origin remain in the mother decades later. Dr. Nelson’s research group investigates the immunologic consequences of maternal-fetal exchange during pregnancy and the legacy of maternal-fetal exchange in subsequent years. 

Selected Autoimmune Disease Clinical Trials

Clinical research is an essential part of the scientific process that leads to new treatments and better care. Clinical trials can also be a way for patients to get early access to new cutting-edge therapies. Our clinical research teams are running clinical studies on several kinds of autoimmune diseases.

See all Autoimmune Disease Clinical Trials

Fred Hutch campus

Our Autoimmune Disease Researchers

Our interdisciplinary scientists and clinicians work together to prevent, diagnose and treat autoimmune diseases as well as cancers and other diseases.

Meet Our faculty
Seattle Cancer Care Alliance building

Patient Treatment & Care

Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, our clinical care partner, gives patients access to the comprehensive, world-class treatments developed at Fred Hutch.

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A Patient’s Story

Sallie Rhodes

Sallie Rhodes

Sallie Rhodes’ life was turned upside down when she was diagnosed with a debilitating autoimmune disorder, known as stiff person syndrome, in her early twenties. She was the first patient with the condition to undergo an experimental treatment: bone marrow stem cell transplantation to reboot her immune system.

Last Modified, July 15, 2019