Doctoral student’s research could lead to treatment of MS, other diseases

Like many great scientific discoveries, Daniel Wilkinson’s came almost by accident.

As part of his doctoral research at ECU, Wilkinson was working on a way of creating regulatory T cells, which are used in the treatment of autoimmune diseases, such as multiple sclerosis. But Mark Mannie, Wilkinson’s supervisor and a professor in the Brody School of Medicine’s Department of Microbiology and Immunology, said the results of Wilkinson’s experiments kept coming out differently from what they were expecting.

“He was getting information that didn’t make any sense,” Mannie said. “We were going over it, and it became apparent that what we were trying to do, the opposite was happening. And that became our ‘Eureka!’ moment. We then realized what was really going on and the potential of that.”

T cells are cells in the body that attack infectious organisms, such as viruses and parasites. Most people don’t get autoimmune diseases because of a subset of T cells called “regulatory T cells” that protect the body. But sometimes the T cells become confused and will attack healthy parts of the body, leading to autoimmune conditions such as MS and Type 1 diabetes.

Wilkinson, a Charlotte native who got his bachelor’s degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has figured out a way to replicate the regulatory T cells through an in-vitro process.

“What Daniel has done is figure out a way to grow these cells in such a way that they are stable and maintain their identity. It’s the foundation where we might be able to use these cells therapeutically to treat autoimmune disease,” Mannie said.

Wilkinson has a provisional patent on the process, and he and Mannie are writing a paper on their work. Ultimately, the goal is to license the technology to a biotech company that can use the process to create a treatment for autoimmune conditions.

As an undergraduate, Wilkinson wanted to study medicine to become a physician. But during his senior year, he worked in an HIV research lab, and that changed his outlook. “That really opened me up to a whole new world of discovery, so the idea that I could be the first person to discover something is kind of intriguing to me and what led me to follow this path.”

That’s precisely what Wilkinson has accomplished with his work on regulatory T cells. “At first, it was kind of shocking,” he said. “I didn’t know what I had done exactly, how significant it was, until Dr. Mannie told me that people had been trying to do this for decades. It’s kind of cool.”