Published on January 21, 2013 at 1:59 AM
Dr. Cheroutre said the transformation of CD 4 helper T cells into killer cells already occurs in the body naturally. "Our finding could help to explain a number of occurrences that we haven't really understood up to this point, such as why some people can be chronically infected with HIV without developing AIDS." In these instances, Dr. Cheroutre is convinced that CD4 helper T cells must be taking over the role of killer cells after the CD8 T cells become exhausted. "It's like the helper cells can come in as reinforcements to keep the virus under control. If we can develop ways to artificially trigger that process, we may be able to significantly help people with HIV and other chronic infections."
While scientists would want to trigger a larger army of virus-specific killer cells in the case of infections, the opposite would be true in inflammation-fueled autoimmune diseases, like rheumatoid arthritis or multiple sclerosis, said Dr. Cheroutre. "The CD4 T cells are the bad wolves in inflammatory diseases because they often trigger more pro-inflammatory cells which worsen these conditions," she said. "With this knowledge, we may be able to prevent that by coaxing the CD4 killer cells to become regulatory cells instead, which is another one of their potential functions. In regulatory mode, the CD4 T cells suppress the immune system. This suppression reduces inflammatory cells, which is what we want to do in autoimmune diseases."
However in cancer, the CD4 T cell's regulatory function becomes problematic because they inhibit the killer T cells from destroying cancerous cells. This is because of their built-in mechanism to keep T cells from attacking the body's own cells, said Dr. Cheroutre. "Cancer cells develop from our own cells and only look a little different from healthy cells," she explained. "The killer T cells can sense that they are different and decide to eliminate them. However, the CD4 regulatory T cells frequently suppress the killer T cells and prevent them from destroying the cancerous cells. This is often how cancer cells can escape the immune system's normal action of stamping out bad cells."
Dr. Cheroutre said she believes it may be possible, using the newly discovered mechanism, to turn the CD4 regulatory T cells into killer cells that would aid, rather than block, the immune system's attack on cancerous cells.
Source: La Jolla Institute