Enhancing immune system may be possible

Researchers at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute announced on Monday that the human immune system is subject to performance enhancement, a discovery that could help the body fight infections.

The study, which builds on the 55-year-old theory made by Sir Macfarlane Burnet, an Australian Nobel Laureate and former institute director, looked at a type of immune cell called killer T-cells. The researchers looked into the theory that cells like the killer T-cells can be enhanced.

"We found that a protein called IRF4 is activated in killer T-cell 'clones' that are best equipped to recognize and fight an infection," Dr. Axel Kallies, a researcher from the Walters and Eliza Hall Institute, said. "Burnet's clonal selection theory tells us that the best T cell clones are selected by the immune system and produced in large numbers but, until now, we didn't know how this was regulated and what happened at the molecular level. We discovered that IRF4 controls the mass production of 'elite' killer T cells, as well as ensuring their survival and enhancing their performance by allowing them to take up large amounts of sugar and other nutrients."

The team discovered the IRF4, an important protein activated in the killer T-cells, could be produced at different levels depending on how well the killer T-cells recognized infected cells. The researchers discovered that enhancing the levels of IRF4 could help to boost killer T-cells effectiveness in fight infections and other diseases.

"We are slowly peeling back the layers of how immune cells develop, become activated and function," Kallies said. "Targeting the IRF4 pathway could help us to control immune cells. For example, blocking the pathway to diminish proliferation of immune cells when they are out of control, as happens in blood cancers such as leukemia or in autoimmunity. We could also enhance the activation of IRF4 to rescue T cell clones that are not functional, as a way of boosting the immune response to overwhelming infections such as HIV."