Researchers discover how immune system kills healthy cells

September 10, 2013

Medical scientists at the University of Alberta have made a key discovery about how the immune system kills healthy cells while attacking infections. This finding could one day lead to better solutions for cancer and anti-viral treatments.

Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry researcher Colin Anderson recently published his team's findings in the peer-reviewed journal, Journal of Immunology. His team included colleagues from the United States and the Netherlands, and graduate students from the U of A.

Previous research has shown that when the immune system launches an aggressive attack on infected cells, healthy tissues and cells can be killed or damaged in the process. Anderson and his team discovered the mechanisms in the immune system that cause this "overkill" response.

"This opens the opportunity that one might be able to manipulate the immune system response to block collateral damage without blocking the killing of infected cells," Anderson explained.

"In the future this might be important in the development of clinical treatments in cases where the immune system response needs to be harnessed. For example, in treating various viral infections, the collateral damage caused during the immune system attack is a large part of the illness.

"In other cases, such as cancer or tumour treatments, one may want to increase the immune system's ability to kill collateral cells, in hopes of killing tumour cells that would otherwise escape during treatment and spread elsewhere in the body. Our research suggests there are other mechanisms that could improve cancer therapy and make it more efficacious. This finding could also help us understand why certain treatments are more successful than others."

Anderson's team discovered "the weaponry the uses to try and kill an infected or cancerous cell is not exactly the same as the weaponry that causes collateral damage to innocent bystander cells that aren't infected." For years, it was assumed the weaponry to kill infected cells versus healthy cells was exactly the same.

The research group is continuing the work in this area to see if they can indeed alter the level of to without altering the attack on infected .

Anderson is a researcher in the Department of Surgery and the Department of Medical Microbiology and Immunology. He is also a member of both the Alberta Diabetes Institute and the Alberta Transplant Institute.

Explore further: Discovery could change the way doctors treat patients with cancer and autoimmune diseases

Related Stories

Body's 'safety procedure' could explain autoimmune disease

September 5, 2013

Monash University researchers have found an important safety mechanism in the immune system that may malfunction in people with autoimmune diseases, such as Multiple Sclerosis, potentially paving the way for innovative treatments.

Novel mechanism discovered in first line of immune defence

September 10, 2013

Scientists from A*STAR's Singapore Immunology Network (SIgN) have discovered a new defense mechanism that the immune system utilises to combat infections. The team's discovery of how a novel protein unexpectedly activates ...

Recommended for you

Snapshot turns T cell immunology on its head

October 6, 2015

Challenging a universally accepted, longstanding consensus in the field of immunity requires hard evidence. New research from the Australian Research Council Centre of excellence in advanced Molecular imaging has shown the ...

Four gut bacteria decrease asthma risk in infants

September 30, 2015

New research by scientists at UBC and BC Children's Hospital finds that infants can be protected from getting asthma if they acquire four types of gut bacteria by three months of age. More than 300 families from across Canada ...

Flu infection reveals many paths to immune response

September 28, 2015

A new study of influenza infection in an animal model broadens understanding of how the immune system responds to flu virus, showing that the process is more dynamic than usually described, engaging a broader array of biological ...

Immune cells may help fight against obesity

September 15, 2015

While a healthy lifestyle and "good genes" are known to help prevent obesity, new research published on September 15 in Immunity indicates that certain aspects of the immune system may also play an important role. In the ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.