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Researchers uncover secrets of immune system's munitions factory

Howard Hughes Medical Institute researchers have discovered a new component of the machinery immune cells use to generate a remarkably diverse array of antibodies from a relatively small number of genes.

The discovery reveals important links in the molecular pathway by which complex genetic alterations arm the immune system to target myriad potential bacterial and viral invaders with swiftness and precision. The discovery may also provide welcome new information about lymphoma, a form of leukemia in which certain cells of the immune system proliferate uncontrollably.

Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator Frederick W. Alt led the research team that published its findings August 26, 2004, in the journal Nature. Alt and lead author Jayanta Chaudhuri are at Children's Hospital, Boston, and Harvard Medical School.

The studies focus on B cells, specialized immune cells responsible for producing antibodies, and how an enzyme in those cells known as activation-induced cytidine deaminase (AID) triggers mutations of antibody gene segments to produce an assortment of antibody proteins. This process enables the immune system to produce antibodies that will recognize billions of different antigens the fragments of foreign invaders that are used to call the immune system to arms.

The presence of an antigen on the surface of a B cell stimulates it to produce antibodies. An important step in this process is the activation of AID, which causes largely random mutations in the genes for the antibody segments that recognize antigens. These mutations occur about a million times more frequently than spontaneous mutations in other genes. In this process, known as somatic hypermutation, AID selectively "damages" the DNA strand, prompting the DNA repair system to create the mutations.

AID also triggers class switch recombination, a highly specific process that involves re
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Contact: Jim Keeley
keeleyj@hhmi.org
301-215-8858
Howard Hughes Medical Institute
25-Aug-2004


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