Christine Biron: The thing about the immune system, is really everyday it keeps us from succumbing to the microbes in our environment. It’s really heavily armed, and if you don’t hit that balance, then the immune responses to infection can be more threatening to the body than the infection itself.
Christine Biron is professor of medical sciences at Brown University. She’s talking about the body’s immune system which protects us from disease. Biron studies the role cells called NK or ‘natural killer’ cells play in our body’s immune response. Biron said natural killer cells are components of white blood cells. She described them as the body’s ‘first responders.’
Christine Biron: They really make a difference between health and disease, early on. They can kill, or help kill, virus- infected cells. But they also can have important roles in translating the information that an infection is going on to other players, other cells in the immune system
In other words, the NK cells can help tell other blood cells what to do. In tests conducted on mice, the Biron laboratory recently discovered that NK cells help make sure that the body doesn’t over respond to an infection, and attack itself. Biron said medicines can now be developed to let natural killer cells optimize our immune response in the face of chronic infections like HIV/AIDS or herpes.
Sometimes the NK cells’ levels drop off at the later stages of an infection. Biron and colleagues have figured out how to get natural killer cells to stick around.
Christine Biron: In this case, we identified the role of an activating receptor on the surface of NK, that this molecule is important in stimulating the NK cells to proliferate and stay around for long periods of time. It provides a suggested point of intervention.
Biron clarified that her research has not yet shown exactly why NK cell production sometimes drops off.
Christine Biron: That’s a question we’re trying to answer. But it’s clear that there are certain groups of viruses where having your NK cells around is very important – in particular, herpes group viruses, and cytomegalovirus. There are clear indications that if you can repopulate the cells with a bone marrow transplant earlier, you can help protect people from those kind of infections. There are clear indications in the literature that if you have a high activation of your NK cells, you end up being someone who doesn’t progress to AIDS very quickly. It’s clear that having NK cells is really helpful at fighting off infections.
She said NK counts and examination of NK activating receptors might be used to help show why some people are more susceptible to certain kinds of infections than other people.
Beth Lebwohl researches, writes and helps produce science content in audio and video formats for EarthSky. She is one of the authors on EarthSky.org, a script-writer for our podcasts, and helps host our English science podcasts in 90-second, 8-minute and 22-minute formats. Beth came to EarthSky in 2006 from the American Museum of Natural History's Department of Astrophysics, where she was surrounded by some of the greatest telescope-building, equation-wielding, code-writing physicists of our time. And they made her think . . . this science thing . . . it's pretty cool.