Autoimmune diseases could be treated without impairing normal immunity, a new study from the University of Calgary suggests.

There are more than 80 autoimmune diseases that affect people around the world, and researchers say they've made a discovery that could fundamentally change the way those diseases are treated.

Dr. Pere Santamaria said they've found a class of drugs that selectively targets cells that cause autoimmune diseases like Type I diabetes and multiple scleroisis without impairing a patient's immune system.

"These drugs selectively and specifically take out the cells that cause the disease without affecting any other processes of the immune system that are good for the individual," said Santamaria, the chair of the Julia McFarlane Diabetes Research Center. 

Pere Santamaria 2

Dr. Pere Santamaria says autoimmune diseases could be treated without impairing normal immunity, according to his new study at the University of Calgary. (Tim Devlin/CBC)

"Nanoparticles" can reprogram disease-causing white blood cells in order to fight the disease the cells intended to cause. The new class of drugs exploits that process. Currently, the drugs used to treat autoimmune diseases can't differentiate between normal white blood cells and the ones that cause the disease. That's why people with autoimmune conditions become susceptible to other illnesses.

The drug therapy Santamaria has discovered is being developed by a bio-technology company he founded with Innovate Calgary. He doesn't yet know if the drugs will work in humans, but said this isn't pie in the sky research.

"We are committed to bringing these drugs to the clinic to go into patients in about two and a half, three years from now and it will happen,"