New University research emphasizes T cell diversity

The study’s findings, published last week, could help develop new vaccines.

Tiff Clements

Like two angry roommates snarling over the last piece of coagulating pizza in the box, T cells within the human body are embroiled in a fight for food ­- and survival.

New University research suggests that quality and diversity might be more important than quantity when it comes to cells in the human body’s immune system. These findings could have implications in the development of vaccines for viruses such as HIV.

Grants from the National Institutes of Health funded the study, which was published in the March 3 issue of Science Express.

The study found that T cells, the body’s natural infection fighters, survive and thrive at higher rates when a normal quantity of diverse cells is present versus a greater number of the same cells.

Microbiology professor Marc Jenkins designed the study. He said it draws parallels to ecological research.

“If you have too many predators and not enough prey, then the predators will eventually be in trouble,” he said.

He said T cells feed on a limited number of molecular fragments in the body. Identical cells feed on identical fragments. When there is a large quantity of the same cell, food supply dwindles.

Jenkins’ research also emphasized the importance of diversity among T cells. He said the immune system has millions of different types of T cells, each designed to respond to a specific foreign body.

“You don’t know when you’re going to get the chicken pox; you don’t know when you’re going to step on a nail and get an infection,” Jenkins said.

According to the research, immune systems are strongest when they have smaller numbers of many varieties of T cells.

Medical and doctoral student Jason Hataye said the implications of these findings for further research are unclear.

“It’s hard to predict where this may lead,” he said. “This may pop an idea in someone else’s mind.”

Alex Khoruts, professor of medicine, contributed to the study.

He said it might be “tough to connect the dots” in finding applications for this research. The primary practical implications of the study are for vaccine research, Khoruts said.

“If this advances our understanding of immunology and advances certain technical ways of doing this, then it has implications for things like vaccine research,” he said.