A first of its kind comprehensive map of the network of connections that make up the human immune system has been created, which could lead to new immunotherapies to treat cancer, infectious diseases, and other conditions where immune responses play a role.
In creating the immune system map, scientists from the Wellcome Sanger Institute, ETH Zürich, and collaborators show how immune cells across the body link up and communicate.
This research, published today (3 August 2022) in Nature, includes the discovery of many previously unknown interactions that together shed light on the organisation of the body’s immune defences. This offers answers to longstanding questions about current immunotherapies that are already used to treat patients. In the future, this public and detailed immune system map could also be vital in identifying new therapies.
The immune system is made up of specialised cells, some of which individually travel through the body to scan for signs of injury or disease. Once these cells detect a threat, they need to communicate the message to other cells in order to mount an effective immune response. One way this cell-to-cell signalling is done is through proteins on the surfaces of cells that bind on to matching ‘receptor’ proteins on the surfaces of other cells. Previously, scientists and clinicians only had an incomplete map of these receptor connections between all of the different types of immune cells in the body.
An in-depth understanding of the interactions between immune cells, and how this communication fits into the human body as a whole, is vital if we are to develop treatments that enhance the immune system in order to fight disease, known as immunotherapies.
Immunotherapies have already demonstrated great potential in treating disease, most notably with certain cancers. However, these only work well in certain groups of patients and for particular conditions. Knowing the map of immune receptor connections could help explain why immunotherapies sometimes only work in a subset of patients, and offer new targets for designing future immunotherapies that may work for patients who currently do not benefit from these cutting-edge treatments.
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