(WGN-TV) — Inverse vaccines are the opposite of the vaccines we have come to know. Instead of giving a shot to rev up the immune system, these vaccines give orders to stop the immune response to certain cells. 

Chicago-area doctors believe with the inverse vaccine, they may have found the key to disabling some of the most debilitating autoimmune diseases.

“A regulatory vaccine — an inverse vaccine — revs up regulatory mechanisms to protect your own cells,” said Dr. Jeffrey Hubbell, an immunoengineer with the University of Chicago’s Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering.

Think of it as the opposite of a typical vaccine. Researchers at the school have figured out a way to tell the immune system which cells in the body to leave alone. In other words, it marks healthy cells otherwise destroyed by multiple sclerosis, Type 1 diabetes or celiac disease.

“These diseases like autoimmunity and allergy are usually treated by broad immune suppression, which has its downsides,” Hubbell said. “It would be fantastic to develop an approach that could do it in a very specific way so you leave the rest of immunity intact.”

The inverse vaccine works like other vaccines by delivering a message to T and B cells, the cells that help us fight infections, bacteria and viruses. But instead of telling the cells what to attack, the inverse vaccine tells them what not to destroy.

How does the vaccine work? A nano-molecule loaded with cell material meant to be tolerated by the body is sent to the live, where T and B cells are schooled on what to attack and what not to attack. 

“In the liver, that message is interpreted by so-called antigen-presenting cells, presented to T and B cells, but then turns on these regulatory effects,” Hubbell said.

In their lab, Hubbell and his colleagues simulated a multiple sclerosis-like disease. The inverse vaccine stopped the immune system in mouse models from destroying the myelin sheath on nerve cells. Even more promising, the formula appears to work even after damage has begun.

“Not today, not tomorrow, but after a full series of clinical trials, we hope to be able to have treatments that are sort of one every six months, every year that could undo your immunity to that one particular disease, but leave the rest of your immunity intact,” Hubbell said.

The inverse vaccine has already been tested in clinical trials for celiac disease. Trials in multiple sclerosis patients are underway.