Washington DC: Disguise is just another one of Superman's many powers and now, a team of researchers has revealed a previously unknown type of immune cell that shares the same quality.
The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) discovery opens new avenues in the effort to develop novel therapies for autoimmune diseases such as type 1 diabetes.
The newly discovered cells resemble conventional T cells, yet are biased toward becoming T regulatory cells (Tregs), which protect the body from autoimmune disease.
Senior author Oktay Kirak said, "You wouldn't expect these cells to have this ability. The best analogy I have is Clark Kent turning into Superman. Clark Kent looks like an Average Joe, so no one would expect him to have the same abilities as Superman."
In type 1 diabetes, immune cells mistakenly attack insulin-producing cells in the pancreas. In the new study, researchers began to solve this problem by isolating an individual Treg from a mouse model of type 1 diabetes and inserting its nucleus, which contained the unique genetic immune receptor information, into a mouse egg cell that had its own nucleus removed.
Using this cloning method (Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer), the scientists created a mouse model that produced only the original Treg, allowing them to study its origins and functions for the first time.
The scientists found that the Treg originated in a lymphoid organ called the thymus, making it a "naturally" arising Treg, called an nTreg.
After repeating their experiment several times, the researchers determined that the two T cell types, while genetically identical, looked different because one of them could switch on a gene called FoxP3. An nTreg with inactive FoxP3 (named a pre-nTreg) looked like any other generic or "conventional" T cell, but when activated, the pre-nTreg became an nTreg.
Understanding how pre-nTregs become full-fledged nTregs might lead to the development of new drugs to fight autoimmune diseases.
The findings appear in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.