BioMed X and Merck are establishing a combined research group that will focus on the role of the gut epithelial barrier in the development and progression of autoimmune diseases, including systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) and multiple sclerosis.
This new group will extend the companies’ continuing partnership to a total of six joint research projects to be conducted at the BioMed X Innovation Center in Heidelberg, Germany.
The gut epithelial barrier, which lines the inner surface of both small and large intestines, is comprised of a layer of cells that prevent the entry of harmful molecules, including foreign microorganisms and their toxins, into the bloodstream.
Studies have shown that loss of intestinal barrier function and an imbalance of the gut’s microbial population are associated with the development — and seen as potential therapeutic approaches — for several autoimmune diseases. Those include SLE, rheumatoid arthritis, spondyloarthritis (which includes ankylosing spondylitis among other disorders), and both Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis (two forms of inflammatory bowel disease).
Based on these studies, the main goal of the joint group will be to understand the interaction between enterocytes — cells of the gut epithelial barrier — and dendritic cells, a type of immune cell frequently involved in autoimmune disorders.
Researchers will use several techniques, including conventional and high-throughput metagenomics (the analysis and sequencing of DNA from an environmental sample) generation of miniature 3D gut models known as organoids, and isolation of immune cells.
Importantly, the team will establish a 3D model system of the intestine to assess the interaction between gut epithelial barrier cells and immune cells.
The long-term goal of this project is to identify new biomarkers and therapeutic targets for treating intestinal barrier loss. According to BioMed X, this could help prevent the development and progression of autoimmune diseases.
“We are excited to further extend our collaboration with Merck”, Christian Tidona, founder and managing director of BioMed X, said in a press release.
“This is our first joint research group with Merck beyond the field of oncology and we are looking forward to working with Merck’s Translational Innovation Platform Immunology in Billerica near Boston,” he said.
Merck KGaA, based in Germany, is known as EMD Serono in the U.S. and Canada.