A collaborative study conducted by Federation University Australia and the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute has revealed the origin and function of a specific type of immune cell responsible for defending the body against diseases and infections. This newfound understanding may pave the way for the development of preventative medications to combat cancer and highly contagious diseases such as COVID-19, Strep A, and tuberculosis.
The study, published in Science Immunology, involved the analysis of samples from heart surgery patients up to the age of 16 obtained from the Melbourne Children’s Heart Tissue Bank. Researchers focused on examining “gamma delta T cells” within the context of the thymus gland, a small organ located in the chest near the heart.
According to Associate Professor Dan Pellicci, the study marks the first time that the production of these infection-fighting immune cells in the thymus organ has been demonstrated. He explained, “We have a significant number of these specialized cells in our blood and tissues, which accumulate as we mature into adults. However, until our study, it remained unclear how these cells develop in the body.” He further elaborated, “We have now shown how these cells undergo three stages of training, similar to receiving primary, secondary, and tertiary education, within the thymus. Following this education, the cells are ready to circulate throughout the body and effectively combat infections.”
The study challenges the previous assumption that these immune cells primarily originate in the liver during fetal development. Instead, the research highlights the significant role of the thymus in the ongoing development of these cells as individuals age. Associate Professor Pellicci emphasized, “The thymus, an often overlooked organ, contributes to the body’s preparation for a lifetime of good health.”
Understanding the functioning and development of these specialized white blood cells holds the potential for unlocking new approaches to treating infectious diseases and cancer. Associate Professor Pellicci concluded, “The more knowledge we acquire about these cells, the greater the likelihood of discovering novel strategies to prevent and combat these diseases.”
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