U’s T-cell research could cure diseases

Yelena Kibasova

University researchers are taking on the roles of superheroes, hoping their discovery could one day treat gastrointestinal diseases, help underdeveloped countries and protect the United States from bioterrorism.

Researchers found cells that turn on infection-fighting T-cells in the intestines of mice. Targeting these specific cells might give researchers an opportunity to develop treatments for gastrointestinal infections, said Stephen McSorley, an assistant professor in the department of medicine and the primary investigator of the research.

T-cells are one type of white blood cells that help fight infection. With more study of human tissue, this type of research eventually could result in medication for people with inflammatory bowel diseases such as Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, McSorley said.

“It’s a very debilitating disease,” he said. “They have constant diarrhea and an inability to get nutrition from their food.”

In the study, researchers used salmonella to activate the T-cells. Salmonella is important because it can cause typhoid, McSorley said.

According to the National Center for Infectious Diseases, Division of Bacterial and Mycotic Diseases, typhoid affects about 21.5 million people in developing countries each year. McSorley said he would like to see the research help developing countries fight typhoid.

“It’s a disease that has a high fatality rate if it’s not treated promptly with antibiotics,” McSorley said.

Typhoid is characterized by bloody diarrhea and fever. Many cases appear in India and Southeast Asia as a result of contaminated food and water.

“Their sanitation is a big, big problem,” said Rajesh Ravindran, a postdoctoral fellow in the department of medicine and an investigator in the research. “If the sanitation is not great, things from the fecal matter could get mixed up with the food.”

Ravindran said there are a few vaccines for typhoid, but they can have negative reactions and often don’t work well.

Another reason to conduct this kind of research is to protect the United States from bioterrorism by finding vaccines.

“People in the U.S. don’t tend to think about typhoid too much,” McSorley said. “But nowadays with bioterrorism, it’s important that we think about some of these agents and design better vaccines and therapies.”

He said there is a need “to develop therapies that would protect us against people that would get a hold of salmonella and use it in an offensive way.”

McSorley said salmonella has been used for bioterrorism in the United States before.

In 1984 a Bhagwan Shri Rajneesh group tried to control an election by poisoning people in The Dalles, Ore. Members spread salmonella to 10 restaurants in the area, and more than 700 people became sick.

Aparna Srinivasan, a graduate student in the department of medicine and an investigator in the research, said more research has to be done to benefit humans in the long run.

The current research “might give a clue as to what’s going on in other infectious diseases in the gut,” Srinivasan said.