Immune-system detection of virus-infected cells
In 1996, Peter C. Doherty and Rolf M. Zinkernagel won a Nobel choose which cells to target during a viral infection.
When attacked by a virus, our immune system can mount a range of responses. One such response involves a certain type of white blood cell, the T-lymphocyte, which is capable of killing virus-infected cells. In the 1970s, Peter C. Doherty and Rolf M. Zinkernagel studied the immune responses of mice to uncover how T-lymphocytes decide which cells to kill and which to spare.
The pair found that T-lymphocytes only kill virus-infected cells if they come from the same organism: one mouse’s T-lymphocyte will not kill another mouse’s infected cell. So T-lymphocytes must have a method of simultaneously recognising viral infection and also recognising cells as ‘self’.
With further experiments, it became clear that certain viral proteins were ‘presented’ by infected cells to the T-lymphocytes, to indicate infection. It also became clear that the major histocompatibility complex (HLA), which had been known to play a part in transplant rejection, allows our T-lymphocytes to recognise our own cells in normal immune responses.
Doherty and Zinkernagel’s work provided important insights into a vital part of our immune system. It had a huge impact on the development of therapies, such as vaccines, to aid the immune system in combating infection, and influenced research into dysfunction of the immune system in autoimmune diseases.
Last edited: 27 August 2014 06:02