'Master gene' for immune cells identified

23 September 2009

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Category: Research & medical benefits

mouse–mice–lab.jpgResearchers have identified the master gene that causes blood stem cells to turn into natural killer (NK) immune cells.

NK cells are white blood cells, and are the immune system’s frontline defence against tumors, bacterial infections and viruses. It is thought that malfunctioning NK cells are involved in autoimmune diseases such as diabetes, where the immune system attacks healthy cells. The researchers ‘knocked out’ the E4bp4 gene in mice and saw that the mice produced no NK cells. The rest of the blood cells were unaffected and were at normal levels.

As well as proving the role of E4bp4 in NK cell production, the ‘knockout’ mouse will provide scientists with an animal model that completely lacks NK cells. This model will help researchers to discover if NK cell malfunction is behind conditions such as autoimmune diseases and graft rejection.

The team are also hoping to develop therapies to increase the number of NK cells. They hope that raised levels of NK cells would increase the chances of the body fighting tumors. Currently donor NK cells are used in cancer therapy, however due to donor-patient incompatibility they only have limited effectiveness. This method would eliminate this problem, as the extra cells would be produced by the patients themselves.