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Researchers from Brown University and McGill University have discovered
that the natural killer, or NK cells, help prevent T cells from
over-responding when a virus hits. This balance helps prevent T cells,
which ordinarily serve the immune system, from causing harm.
Natural killer, or NK cells, are part of our innate immune system. A
healthy body produces them to respond early during infection. They are
activated and they kill cells infected with a given virus.
It turns out NK cells are even more important to the body than
previously thought. Researchers from Brown University and McGill
University now know that the cells also help keep T cells — major
players in cell-mediated immunity — from over-responding. Such a balance
helps T cells maintain their role in the body’s adaptive immune
response, rather than becoming too numerous and activated to cause harm.
The discovery, published in the September issue of The Journal of
Experimental Medicine, could someday be used to help treat
patients with compromised immune systems. Managing NK cell production
might help stabilize the immune systems of people with HIV or keep
patients from rejecting bone marrow or organ transplants.
The findings place an importance on understanding how to keep NK
cells around, because they can be lost, said lead author Christine
Biron, professor of medical science at Brown University.
“The work reveals two important aspects of NK cell biology, the first
piece being understanding how to keep NK cells instead of losing them,”
said Biron, the Esther Elizabeth Brintzenhoff Professor in the
Department of Molecular Biology, Cell Biology and Biochemistry. “The
second is that if you can keep them around, they have an important
regulatory function to limit adaptive immune response. If you don’t have
them during long challenges, your adaptive immune system response could
go unregulated and lead to death.”
Scientists have known that NK cells have antimicrobial effects. But
the newer research focuses on factors that help keep NK cells around.
Through studying mice, researchers determined that the ability to keep
NK cells around depends on whether they have a particular kind of
activating receptor that promotes their proliferations.
Once activated, the expanded NK cells help produce a cytokine known
as interleukin–10, which effects immunoregulation and inflammation
control. (Cytokines are protein molecules that help regulate the immune
system) In turn, IL–10 helps dampen the T cell response. An
overabundance of T cells in this case can harm the body and cause death.
Biron said it was important to learn that it is possible to help make
NK cells proliferate, as an important milestone to help sustain them in
the body when needed.
Such an understanding is crucial, she said, to help patients with
compromised immune systems who may not be able to sustain NK cells on
Biron said the research underscores the need for balance in the
immune system, with the right combination of NK and T cells to
complement innate and adaptive immunity in the body.
“You want the right balance,” she said. “This could help create the
The National Institutes of Health and the Canadian Health Institute
funded the study.
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