A discovery by scientists at OMRF may lead to the prevention of infections in the elderly.
The findings, which appear in the scientific journal Blood, detail how certain proteins in the body direct the creation of new white blood cells. Those cells are made by bone marrow and help the body fight infection and other diseases.
“All of our blood comes from stem cells in the bone marrow,” said Xiao-Hong Sun, Ph.D., the paper’s senior author. “And as those cells develop, they branch out into different, more specific types of blood cells.”
Sun’s lab found there’s a point in the creation of new white blood cells where they can become either infection-fighting B or T cells in the immune system or bacteria-eating cells called macrophages. Which way they go depends on which type of proteins is more abundant in a person’s body.
“Now we know at what stage we can switch the development path of the cells,” she said. “This is significant because we can use the information to help maintain the balance needed for a healthy immune system.”
Sun said that it could be particularly useful in treating elderly patients, who have an increased susceptibility to infections. Building on this discovery, doctors could help create more infection-fighting cells.
The work could have implications in treating influenza, which has higher rates of mortality in the elderly. “The lack of balance in the immune system is one of the reasons that older people do not respond well to flu shots,” said Sun. “If we could rebalance the immune system, that could lead to more effective flu prevention.”
This research was funded by a grant from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease.
Sun is a member of the Immunobiology and Cancer Research Program at OMRF, where she holds the Eli Lilly Chair in Biomedical Research. She earned her Ph.D. at Cornell University and joined OMRF’s scientific staff in 1999. Her laboratory focuses on understanding the development and function of cells in the immune system.