3 Recent Major Breakthroughs In Immunology

2016 Immunology Research

The field of immunology plays a vital role in understanding diseases and how they affect the human body. Dangerous diseases such as small pox and tuberculosis have been virtually eradicated through studying the immune system and creating powerful – though at times controversial – vaccines. As highlighted in the instances below, immunology is also used as a tool to diagnose diseases such as cancer and offer valuable insight on patient treatments.

This year has been a monumental year for immunology, with technological advancements occurring every day. Innovations in therapies for autoimmune disorders, how we understand antigens, and the way antibodies effect our bodies are all ways that researchers are working to reduce and understand disease. Here are three recent breakthroughs in immunology that you should know about:


T-cells May Help Boost Aging Immune Systems

Our innate and adaptive immune systems are constantly at work, and as we physically age, our immune system is aging as well. For that reason, as we get older our immune systems get weaker and do not provide the same level of protection as they did during our younger years. A recent study of T-cells is giving researchers reason to believe that immunity can be boosted in older adults. Conducted by the University of Arizona, a research team collected data from 92 volunteers ranging in age from 21 to 97. The main focus of their efforts were naïve t-cells- cells that have never been exposed to a virus or infection. After stimulating the cells with a virus, researchers discovered that naïve t-cells started to generate a key anti-viral molecule called interferon-gamma.

This breakthrough suggested that with enough naïve t-cells present in the body, a healthy immune system can be built which is crucial for combating infections in the aging population.  Dr. Nikolich-Žugich, lead investigator on the study, stated that, “The biggest challenge for us going forward is to measure the status of the immune system, including these new cells, and actually show, in an average person, if you are below a certain level of a T cell population, or a certain cytokine or a certain antibody, what is your risk of infection or poor response to vaccination. And if you are at risk, how can we work to help you and your immune system.”

FDA Approves First PD-L1 Inhibitor

The American Cancer Society estimates about 76,960 new cases of bladder cancer (about 58,950 in men and 18,010 in women) in 2016. The FDA recently approved Tecentriq, the first PD-L1 inhibitor developed to treat the leading type of bladder cancer called urothelial carcinoma. “Tecentriq targets the PD-1/PD-L1 pathway (proteins found on the body’s immune cells and some cancer cells). By blocking these interactions, Tecentriq may help the body’s immune system fight cancer cells.”

Of the 310 patients with advanced or metastatic urothelial carcinoma that were studied, those with “positive” PD-L1 expression experienced the most significant tumor response- 26% versus 9.5% of those without PD-L1 expression. The outcome implies that a patient’s level of PD-L1 expression can predict how well their tumor will respond to Tecentriq, and as a result the FDA has also approved Ventana PD-L1 – an immunotherapy diagnostic tool used to assess a patient’s current PD-L1 level in order to help doctors determine the best treatment options.

Altering Immune System Pathways Reduces Colitis

Inflammatory diseases such as colitis and IBD affect millions of people each year, and the root causes are not often identified. Researchers from the University of Queensland have found that taking a closer look at the two separate systems that comprise the immune system could be the answer to halting the inflammatory damage caused by the diseases. Professor Matt Cooper noted that up until this point, it was presumed that the adaptive and innate immune systems worked separately, but through research he found that the processes are able to work in conjunction. “Inflammation in diseases such as colitis occurs when the immune system is activated inappropriately. Current treatments are not always effective, possibly because they are only blocking one of the key pathways and inflammation still occurs through the other pathway.”

To test their theory, researchers developed two molecules that each block one pathway. Results proved that both molecules were able to reduce inflammation when administered independently.  “This work is still in the early stages but we are hopeful our ongoing research will lead to more effective treatments for the millions of IBD sufferers.”

Sierra Kennedy
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