The finding may help explain how a mother avoids rejecting a genetically foreign fetus and provides a new target for treatments to help the immune system ignore other desirables like a transplanted organ.
"Think of this like a radio transmitter and a receiver," says Dr. David H. Munn, pediatric hematologist-oncologist at the Medical College of Georgia and lead author of the study in the May issue of Immunity.
The transmitter is indoleamine 2,3-dioxygenase, or IDO, an enzyme particularly expressed in places such as the gastrointestinal tract and tonsils where the immune system routinely meets up with foreign substances it might want to ignore.
Drs. Munn, Andrew L. Mellor and Simon J. Conway published a Science article in 1998 showing IDO's role in protecting the fetus from rejection by the mother's immune system during pregnancy. Later they learned that tumors and persistent viruses such as HIV may hijack this mechanism to shield themselves from immune attack.
They knew IDO degraded tryptophan, an amino acid essential to the survival of T cells. They weren't so certain what happened at the receiving end.
The researchers wondered if T cells exposed to IDO might simply starve to death without enough trytophan, one of nine essential amino acids attainable only through food. "If the T cells are just starving, then you don't need a receiver. They just die. But the T cells didn't seem to be dying. They seemed to be rendered selectively non-responsive," says Dr. Munn. "That sounded more like the T cell was participating in this process."
So the researchers started looking at the few genes known to respond to amino acid levels and found GCN2.
GCN2 is present and active in many cells, but its major sites of action are unknown and its role in T cells was un
Contact: Toni Baker
Medical College of Georgia