July 27, 2011
Discovery has potential implications for cancer, autoimmune disease
A regulatory T cell that expresses three specific genes shuts down the mass production of antibodies launched by the immune system to attack invaders, a team led by scientists at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center reported online in the journal Nature Medicine.
“Regulatory T cells prevent unwanted or exaggerated immune system responses, but the mechanism by which they accomplish this has been unclear,” said paper senior author Chen Dong, Ph.D., professor in MD Anderson’s Department of Immunology and director of the Center for Inflammation and Cancer.
“We’ve identified a molecular pathway that creates a specialized regulatory T cell, which suppresses the reaction of structures called germinal centers. This is where immune system T cells and B cells interact to swiftly produce large quantities of antibodies,” Dong said.
The discovery of the germinal center off-switch, which comes two years after Dong and colleagues identified the mechanisms underlying a helper T cell that activates the centers, has potential implications for cancer and autoimmune diseases.
“In some types of cancer, the presence of many regulatory T cells is associated with poor prognosis,” Dong said. “The theory is those cells suppress an immune system response in the tumor’s microenvironment that otherwise might have attacked the cancer.”
However, in B cell lymphomas, overproliferation and mutation of B cells are the problems, Dong said. Hitting the regulatory T cell off-switch might help against lymphomas and autoimmune diseases, while blocking it could permit an immune response against other cancers.