The human immune system is a complex network of specialised cells. Some of these travel throughout the body, scanning for signs of injury or disease and communicating any threats to other cells in order to release an immune response. Cell-to-cell signalling occurs when proteins on the surfaces of cells bind to matching ‘receptor’ proteins on the surfaces of other cells.
Understanding immune system’s receptor connections
Understanding and tracking these processes is critical for scientists and doctors seeking to treat patients efficiently. However, scientists and clinicians have only had an incomplete map and thus a hazy understanding of these receptor connections thus far.
Now, scientists from ETH Zurich and the Wellcome Sanger Institute (UK) have developed a complete map of the network of connections that makes up the human immune system that demonstrates how immune cells connect and communicate in a way that is unique in the field. The new map emphasises the individual cell types, messengers, and relative speed of each immune cell conversation.
The tool has the potential to transform how researchers approach drug development and treatment therapies.
“This research has resulted in an incredible new tool that can be used to help highlight which proteins and pathways in drug development would be beneficial to target.” It can also reveal whether a drug will have an effect on other pathways, which could result in side effects,” said Professor Berend Snijder, co-author and professor at ETH Zürich’s Institute of Molecular Systems Biology.
Treatments that enhance the immune system
The new map’s understanding is especially important for developing immunotherapies, which boost the immune system to fight disease. This is because the map also highlights the discovery of many previously unknown interactions, which together shed light on the organisation of the body’s immune defences.
“Immunotherapies have already shown great promise in the treatment of disease, most notably in the treatment of certain cancers.” However, these are only effective in certain patient groups and for specific conditions. Knowing the map of immune receptor connections “could help explain why immunotherapies sometimes only work in a subset of patients and provide new targets for designing future immunotherapies that may work for patients who do not currently benefit from these treatments,” the researchers write in a press release.
Finally, the map will provide a new understanding of the cell-to-cell signals occurring in the immune system that trigger autoimmune diseases, which are caused when the body mistakes internal signals and attacks itself.
The research is published in Nature magazine.