Viruses like the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and the Epstein-Barr virus are exceptionally hard to eradicate and are able to evade immune system detection – resulting in chronic, life-long infections. Boosting the number and function of specialised killer T cells could fix that
Dormant, hidden virus populations are a problem. By age 40 over 50% of adults are infected with CMV (cytomegalovirus), a pathogen associated with accelerated immune aging and telomere shortening. A range of other viruses, including the dreaded HIV, are also able to safely hide from your immune cells; establishing pockets that can resurrect viral activity after treatment stops or the immune system weakens. Eradicating these latent viral stores could not only offer a permanent cure, but also save a great deal of money by preventing lifelong anti-viral treatment.
“We’ve shown for the first time that there are specialised killer T cells that can migrate into a part of the lymphoid tissue and control hidden infection”
Giving your immune system a leg up
One of the primary sites of hidden viruses is lymphoid tissue, in sites called B cell follicles. An international collaboration of scientists has now discovered that a specialised type of immune cell called a follicular cytotoxic (killer) T cell, is actually able to identify, migrate and destroy these hidden, follice virus stores in question. The problem seems to be that there aren’t enough of them, and their ‘killing’ capabilities need a boost.
“The potential of this discovery is huge. It helps us to understand how we may be able to treat diseases that affect the immune system itself, such as HIV or B cell lymphoma. We could potentially transfer these specialised super potent killer T cells into patients, or we could treat patients with proteins that can drag these specialised killer T-cells into the right spots, specifically to the hot spots where HIV can hide on antiviral treatment”
While this is still extremely new information, if a subset of T cells is able to identify these hidden viruses this suggests that boosting numbers and improving their function may be able to treat and clear chronic infections. This concept is much the same as some strands of cancer immunotherapy treatments, in which T cells are modified to target specific cancer populations.
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