Researchers from McGill University and the US National Cancer Institute (NCI) have made some surprising discoveries about our immune system. By using mathematical modelling to look at specific aspects of immune responses in mice and humans, their data-driven approach, described in a recent article in Science, reveals that immune responses may exist on a finer spectrum than had previously been believed. The results also suggest that in the battle between a body’s defenses and intruders, the messengers are key. These findings could advance cancer and other immunotherapy treatments.
Fever, cough, sore throat — symptoms in the spotlight in the era of COVID-19 — are just some of the tell-tale signs of our body’s immune system kicking into action against an unwanted intruder. Whether triggered by an infection, an allergen, or a vaccine, immune responses are driven by a complex array of cellular processes that can play out over several days or even weeks.
A lot is known about the overarching processes at play in immune responses. But because of the sheer numbers of variables involved, pinpointing what to focus on to develop treatments or vaccines proves very much like looking for a needle in a haystack. This may now change thanks to a new study by researchers from McGill University and the US National Cancer Institute (NCI), published recently in Science.
It focused on a fundamental process in the immune system: the role of proteins called cytokines in signalling and kickstarting a body’s responses.
The crucial role of the messengers
Our immune system is often characterized as a battle. Certain critical white blood cells (called T cells) travel through the bloodstream and lymphatic systems and into tissues, searching for traces of microorganisms and other invaders known as antigens. To avoid attacking healthy cells indiscriminately, T cells circulate until they recognize a specific antigen; only then do they send out messengers in the form of cytokines to activate an alert system and signal that all is not well.
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