In a potentially important step toward rheumatoid arthritis prevention, British researchers announced in 2008 that they will soon begin human testing of an experimental rheumatoid arthritis vaccine. 

To make the vaccine, scientists at Newcastle University, in Newcastle-on-Tyne in the United Kingdom, will use steroids, vitamin D, and chemicals to turn a patient’s white blood cells into specialized tolerogenic dendritic cells, which are believed to switch off the immune system.

The vaccine will then be injected into the knees of eight study volunteers with rheumatoid arthritis to see if it can stop the disease process.  

"That would have to be something that would have to be individualized patient by patient, but I think that's acceptable when you're talking about autoimmune disease," said William H. Robinson, MD, PhD, assistant professor of immunology and rheumatology and director of the Robinson Lab at Stanford University.

Dr. Robinson, who is not involved in the Newcastle project, has been working to develop vaccines for autoimmune diseases including multiple sclerosis and type I diabetes. He says several research teams have tried, but failed, to develop a rheumatoid arthritis vaccine using the approach being tested at Newcastle.

"I’m not aware of any good data suggesting it might work in humans," Dr. Robinson said. "They’re very much trailblazing that way."

The technique, turning the body's own white blood cells into a vaccine, has been tried before in cancer research, but this is the first time such an approach has been used to develop a rheumatoid arthritis vaccine.

In a university press release, John Isaacs, MB BS, PhD, a professor of rheumatology in the University’s Musculoskeletal Research Group and the leader of the study, called the vaccine “hugely exciting.”

If the shots seem to be safe and effective, this pilot study could set the stage for larger human trials and ultimately be a benchmark in rheumatoid arthritis prevention.