A research team led by the La Jolla Institute for Allergy & Immunology has discovered the mechanism that enables CD4 helper T cells to assume the more aggressive role of killer T cells in mounting an immune attack against viruses, cancerous tumors and other damaged or infected cells. The finding, made in collaboration with researchers from the RIKEN Institute in Japan, could enable the development of more potent drugs for AIDS, cancer and many other diseases based on using this mechanism to trigger larger armies of killer T cells against infected or damaged cells.
CD4 helper T cells, which normally assist other cells of the immune system during an infection, and CD8 killer T cells, which directly attack and eliminate infected cells, are two of the body’s most important immune cells for defending against diseases. Earlier research studies have shown that helper T cells can become killer cells in some instances. However, the specific mechanism of action that allowed this to occur was not known until now.
“We have identified the molecular switch that enables CD4 T cells to override their programming as helper cells and transform into cytolytic (killer) cells,” said La Jolla Institute scientist and study co-leader Hilde Cheroutre, Ph.D. “Our team also showed that these transformed helper T cells represent a separate and distinct population of cells. They are not a subset of TH-1 helper cells as previously thought.”
Jay A. Berzofsky, M.D., Ph.D., chief of the Vaccine Branch at the National Cancer Institute’s Center for Cancer Research, called the finding “a major advance” that provides new understanding about the cell’s lineage and basic mechanisms. Dr. Berzofsky was among the researchers whose work in the 1980s first demonstrated that helper cells could convert to killer cells. “Understanding how these cells derive and what causes them to switch from helper T cells to cytolytic T cells is an important step to learning how to manipulate them in disease,” he said, noting it could lead to novel approaches “either to turn these cells off in autoimmune disease or turn them on in infectious diseases.”
He added that the finding could also have important implications in cancer. “We need all of the cytolytic machinery that we can get to try to destroy cancers,” he said. “If we can learn to turn them on, I think it’s reasonable to believe that these cytolytic T cells can play an important role in controlling cancer.”
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