Researchers solve the mystery of a key structure in immune system cells

If the immune system had a motto, new research shows that an appropriate one would be "No job too big or too small." A multi-center team has found that the system can respond to infections that range from sneak attacks to all-out onslaughts thanks to a doughnut-shaped molecular structure that forms between immune cells when they're communicating. The team has found that this structure not only serves to amplify the faint signals of an attacker, but also to mute overpowering signals that might otherwise "blind" the system.

The immune cell structure acts much like the iris in the eye, which adjusts to let vision function from very dark to very bright conditions, explains Michael Dustin, Ph.D., the Irene Diamond Associate Professor of Immunology at NYU School of Medicine, one of the study's lead authors. "If you're in a very dark room, you see by opening your iris and enhancing sensitivity to light," he explains. "But then if you get hit with a burst of light, momentarily you're blinded but then the system adapts, and that's like what the immune cells are doing in this process." This structure lets the body's immune system respond to signs of invasion over a huge range of magnitudes, he says.

Researchers are hopeful that now that the role of this channel of communication has been identified, it may serve as a potential target for treating diseases -- those in which the body attacks itself, such as in arthritis, as well as those in which the body doesn't recognize the attacker, such as tumors. "This could be the hidden factor in autoimmune disease," says Dr. Dustin.

The study was led by Dr. Dustin, Arup Chakraborty, Ph.D., Professor of Chemical Engineering and Chemistry at the University of California at Berkeley and faculty scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and Andrey Shaw, M.D., Professor of Pathology and Immunology at Washington University School of Medicine. Their findings are reported in the journal Science, which will

Contact: Pamela McDonnell
New York University Medical Center and School of Medicine

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