T-cells caught in the act

Researchers in the US have managed to video T-cells at work – and it might help in the fight against autoimmune disorders such as Type 1 diabetes.

T-cells are one of the human body’s most potent weapons against many diseases, wiping out bacteria and viruses. However, they can cause problems in people with autoimmune disorders by mistaking normal cells for invaders and attacking healthy parts of the body.

To learn more about how and why this happens, immunologists from the University of Texas at Austin looked inside the thymus, an organ above the heart where, as co-author Lauren Ehrlich puts it, the cells “get educated to not attack the body”.

Ehrlich and colleague Jessica Lancaster used a pair of powerful lasers that fire in short pulses and scan through a slice of live tissue every 15 seconds to reconstruct the positions, movements and intracellular signalling of cells.

They observed that as T-cells develop, other cells in the thymus help them to encounter human proteins that, later on, they will need to ignore in order to avoid attacking other parts of the body. 

They say they learned more about how different types of cells work together in the thymus to perform the safety tests and, in the event that a T-cell fails, trigger it to self-destruct.

The findings are reported in the journal Nature Communications.

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