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Touching research: How white blood cells navigate

We all know the power of touch: A whack on the skull or a hug can convey more information than other forms of communication ever can. It turns out the same is true inside our bodies, where just the right touch among blood cells can mean the difference between good health and chronic conditions like heart disease and diabetes.

The power of touch among blood cells is the focus of a team of biomedical engineers at the University of Rochester that has received an $11.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health. The five-year program takes aim at a process that is fundamental to our health: How do mechanical forces govern our white blood cells and assure that they protect our bodies from invaders like the flu? What forces help keep those cells from getting out of control and attacking our own tissues?

The group is focusing on white blood cells known as neutrophils, which are the body's first responders to inflammation and infection, and how those cells interact with the blood vessel lining known as the endothelium. The cells float along in the bloodstream and make the round trip through the human body in about one minute, always on patrol, looking for invaders. When they see an intruder, they call in reinforcements, pursue and destroy but only in partnership with the blood vessel lining, which gives the cells access to tissue, like a police officer who clears the way for other officers to pursue the target. The physical touching between the cells and the lining is crucial.

"This is your first line of defense against disease," says Richard Waugh, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Biomedical Engineering and leader of the team of engineers and scientists who received the grant. "Some of the biggest health problems that people face result from inappropriate responses of white blood cells. Understanding the details of our defenses, at the level of the blood cell, is crucial for developing new treatments and for controlling inappropriat
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Contact: Tom Rickey
tom_rickey@urmc.rochester.edu
585-275-7954
University of Rochester Medical Center
12-Oct-2004


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