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Unraveling the Mysteries of the Immune System


The role of the immune system is to protect the body against attacks by foreign invaders. To do this, many cells share specific tasks to identify threats, send alarms and fight viruses, bacteria and other foreign or harmful elements.

In such a well-ordered system, even the slightest disturbance can cause strong reactions and inflammation, such as in the case of autoimmune diseases.

Treg cells under the microscope

Dr. Ciriaco Piccirillo is a world-renowned immunologist and a leading expert in regulatory Treg cells, which prevent excessive inflammatory responses from occurring in our immune system when it is threatened.

By analyzing the behaviour of Treg cells in a very sick young patient, Dr. Piccirillo discovered a key element that could lead to numerous medical breakthroughs.

A little less than 10 years ago, Dr. Piccirillo received a phone call: a five-week old baby had been diagnosed with a rare genetic disease of the immune system.

For lack of proper treatment, the baby unfortunately died two weeks later, but its short life would have a significant impact on the medical community.

Dr. Piccirillo was given a few drops of the baby’s blood, which he used to understand the importance of a specific mutation inside a gene related to the development of Treg cells called FOXp3. In the baby’s disease, the FOXp3 mutation made the Treg cells deficient, keeping them from performing their role of preventing excessive inflammatory responses.

A major breakthrough that could help hundreds of thousands

Dr. Piccirillo’s discovery represents a major breakthrough in immunology. It has already contributed to the development of a treatment for IPEX, the baby’s rare disease.

It also provides a new way of explaining several autoimmune and inflammatory diseases affecting hundreds of thousands of Canadians.

If the next phases of Dr. Piccirillo’s research are conclusive, benefits for the community could be extensive: more effective treatments for diseases such as asthma, lupus, Crohn’s disease, type 1 diabetes or multiple sclerosis, as well as certain types of cancers could be developed.

Encourage research

Every year, the Montreal General Hospital Foundation partners with the Research Institute to present over 100 Research Awards to leading medical and nursing clinical researchers. Dr. Piccirillo has received many of these awards, which have allowed him to continue his research here in Montreal and help train many students and researchers.

If you want to support Dr. Piccirillo’s research projects, you may make a donation online.

If you have any questions, please contact us.

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