ECU News Services
June 6, 2017
By Phillip RamatiUNC System Communications
Like many great scientific discoveries, Daniel Wilkinson’s
came almost by accident.
As part of his doctoral research at East Carolina
University, 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 than what they were
“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. 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. Most people don’t get autoimmune
diseases because of a subset of T cells called “regulatory T cells” that
protect the body.
Scientists don’t have a lot of knowledge when it comes to
how regulatory T cells work, because they are very malleable and are difficult
to cultivate and study.
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.
“Scientists who study these cells get very frustrated
because it’s very difficult to grow these cells in a culture tube because they
tend to be unstable in that type of environment, and we don’t know why,” Mannie
said. “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
Wilkinson said, “With regulatory T cells, they can become
unstable and actually make disease worse. I basically developed a method that
allows us to generate a large number of these regulatory T cells and expand
them in-vitro without them changing. To our knowledge, we’re the first
laboratory to accomplish this feat.”
Wilkinson has a provisional patent on the process, and he
and Mannie are authoring 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.
Mannie calls Wilkinson a model student and researcher.
“He’s very technically oriented – most of everything he does
is a technical success, Mannie said. “He’s what most people would like, more
students like him, because he can plug away at his research and do such a nice
job. ‘Productive independence’ is the key term.”
As an undergraduate, Wilkinson wanted to study medicine to
become a physician. But during his senior year, Wilkinson 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.”