Researchers at the University of Queensland (UQ) have developed a rheumatoid arthritis treatment that targets the underlying cause of the disease.

The breakthrough, vaccine-style treatment works by teaching the immune system to ignore a peptide that it usually deems to be a foreign enemy.

“It's rather re-educating the immune system so that instead of responding to that enemy to actually stop responding or to make a counter regulatory peace-making effort against the enemy so that things will quieten down,” Lead researcher Professor Ranjeny Thomas from UQ Diamantina Institute told the ABC.

The treatment is designed for people with CCP-positive rheumatoid arthritis, the most common form.

The team has undertaken its first human trials, which requires taking a sample of patients’ blood, adding an anti-inflammatory and the ‘foreign’ peptide, and re-injecting the modified cells.

Inflammation was noticeably reduced after just the first phase of trials, and a paper suggesting the treatment is safe and effective has been published in the journal Science Translational Medicine.

“It's significant because it really is a new way of thinking about how to treat diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and it will have applications for other diseases as well which is similar like type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis,” Prof Thomas said.

She said researchers were now working on a ready-made vaccine that could be injected directly into patients.

“The way that we've published it in the trial is not something that is necessarily easy to take forward because it involves taking cells out, modifying them, putting them back,” she said.

“So we've also been working on a technology that involves doing this in a more practical way for patients and a more cost-effective way.

“This involves a nano-particle — small particle that encapsulates the peptide ... and an anti-inflammatory drug in order to target the cells that we had taken out in the trial.

“But in this case we target them in the body directly. So it would be an injected product that targets those cells in the patient.

“It would be fantastic in the future if we could have a therapy that would be very effective very early in the disease, and potentially even be used before the disease is going to hit in people that we can detect prior to the onset with good screening tools.”