University of Dundee

Cell Signalling and Immunology researchers provide new insight into the operation of white blood cells

14 Mar 2011

Researchers at the new Division of Cell Signalling and Immunology at the College of Life Sciences, Dundee have developed new insights into the operation of white blood cells which play a vital role in fighting viral infections and dealing with organ transplants.

Cytotoxic T cells are a subpopulation of white blood cells that have an essential role in fighting fight viral infections. They work by killing the cells in our bodies that are infected with viruses. They also play a key role in how the human body rejects organ transplants.

Now researchers at CLS have provided novel insights about the control mechanisms that allow these cells to execute their role. These provide important information towards developing possible new treatments for autoimmune diseases and treatments to prevent organ rejection following transplantation.

The research was carried out by Professor Doreen Cantrell and her team of PhD students and Postdoctoral Research Fellows, funded by the Wellcome Trust.

“This work identifies potential new ways to develop treatments to treat autoimmune disease, new treatments to allow organ transplants and new ways to make vaccination more effective,” said Professor Cantrell.

“All of that is a long way from moving from the lab to the clinic but this exciting new work really opens up new avenues.”

The research team have published two papers on their latest findings, one in the journal Nature Immunologyand another in the journal Immunity.

“The most significant finding from these two pieces of work is that they identify two different ways that we can manipulate how these cytotoxic T cells function,” said Professor Cantrell. “This is important, for instance, in looking at vaccination, where these cells play a key role.

“Also, in many autoimmune diseases, and also following organ transplantation, we want to stop the `killer’ function these T cells play.”  

The Nature paper reveals the complexity of cytotoxic T cells for the first time. Using high resolution mass spectrometry, the research team were able to identify thousands of processeses taking place within the cytotoxic T cells. They discovered that T cells that are challenged by viruses undergone striking changes in their make-up.

The team then unmasked a key molecule that controls the function of cytotoxic T cells.

In a second paper, published in Immunity, the Cantrell group turned its focus to the role of Protein Kinase B ( PKB), which in many cell types controls cell metabolism and energy production.

The Cantrell group has shown that this is not the role for PKB in T cells. Instead it allows T cells to kill virally infected cells.PKB also has an essential role in directing the migration of T cells away from lymphoid organs and towards sites of infection in the tissues.