The immune cell consumes other cells to help fight infection and heal wounds.
Think of the human body as a fortified castle. When the castle walls are attacked (that’d be some kind of external injury), soldiers set into action to fend off the invaders. In the body, those brave knights are immune cells, which activate the inflammatory response and repair damaged tissue and blood vessels. As beneficial as it may be, that inflammatory response can also cause certain diseases and ailments, including cancer and arthritis. All of this means that more research must be conducted into immune cells and the inflammatory response.
Breaking down the immune cell
As part of a new study in the journal Cell, a team from the U.K.’s University of Bristol explored the link between the body’s immune response and inflammatory disorders. Specifically, they set out to learn what caused the immune cells to activate the inflammatory response in the first place.
So, the Bristol team decided to focus on the fruit fly, whose macrophage (a specialized immune cell) combats external bacteria or other trauma. The team made a series of time-lapse films of the immune cells in action. In an accompanying press release, lead author Dr. Helen Weavers said the team made a most impressive discovery.
“Our study found that immune cells must first become ‘activated’ by eating a dying neighboring cell before they are able to respond to wounds or infection,” she said. “In this way, immune cells build a molecular memory of this meal, which shapes their inflammatory behavior.”
So why does one cell consume another? After performing a series of genetic tests and modifications on the flies, the scientists found that consuming cells activated a special calcium receptor, which the other cells needs to seek out the so-called “damage signals” that occur after an injury. Without that calcium receptor, immune cells can’t begin the wound healing process.
Now that they have a better idea of how cells signal one another, the team might be able to develop therapies to modify immune cells and better control their movements.
No word yet on a timetable for these new therapies, but the team was sure this discovery would have profound clinical applications. For instance, they might be able to activate cells to one specific wound site, thus increasing the healing rate and strengthening new tissue. And with a stronger immune and inflammatory response, people would have better defenses against infection.
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