A signaling molecule with an affinity for alcohol has yielded a rapid, inexpensive way to make large numbers of immune cells that work like beat cops keeping misguided cells from attacking the body.
The ability to easily make large numbers of these cells opens the door to improved treatment and a better understanding of autoimmune diseases such as type 1 diabetes and arthritis, Medical College of Georgia researchers say.
T cells are components of the immune system designed to attack invaders such as bacteria and viruses; regulatory T cells are a small subset that prevents the cells from also attacking body tissue.
Research published in the August issue of Nature Methods shows that, given the option, phospholipase D, which typically mixes with water, prefers alcohol. It's an apparently lethal choice for the signaling molecule that, in turn, also kills T cells that need phospholipase D to survive. Previously, it was unknown whether regulatory T cells required the molecule.
"What we have found is that if you block this enzyme, almost all T cells die after three days but the regulatory T cells can survive," says Dr. Makio Iwashima, MCG immunologist and the study's corresponding author. "After three days, we give them some food to grow and, in one week, you get about 90 percent pure regulatory cells."
The approach worked with laboratory-grade alcohol, called butanol, as well as beverage-grade ethanol.
Normally, regulatory T cells constitute about 5 percent of the T cell compartment, Dr. Iwashima says. Isolating them is doable but a long, expensive process.
When researchers gave some of the regulatory T cells to a mouse model of inflammatory bowel disease, the symptoms, including dramatic weight loss, went away. Animals showed no classic signs of inflammation, just a significant increase in regulatory cells.