Dec. 21 (UPI) -- For the first time, scientists have observed the technique that dendritic cells use to inform T-cells about the threat of disease.
The breakthrough, detailed Monday in the journal Nature Immunology, could help medical researchers develop new immunotherapy treatments for cancer and other maladies.
Dendritic cells are a type of immune cell responsible for presenting evidence of an invading pathogen to T-cells, which perform a variety of immune-related functions, including the recruitment of other types of infection-fighting antibodies.
When a cell is infected, its proteins are transformed to signify the problem. For the body to deliver an immune response, dendritic cells must show the altered proteins to T-cells.
Until now, scientists weren't sure how dendritic cells accomplished this task.
When dendritic cells find a cell that is diseased and dying, they collect fragments of the infected cell and store them in tiny pockets called phagosomes.
By studying mouse immune cells, researchers found the pockets of dendritic cells, once full of fragments, burst open, freeing the deformed proteins.
The freed proteins are broken down into smaller pieces and swim toward the cellular membrane, where they can be transported to the outside of the cell and received by T-cells.
The new analysis showed the gene DNGR-1 is key to this process.
"For decades, there has been a question over how proteins within phagosomes escape in order to be chopped up and presented at the dendritic cell surface," study co-author Caetano Reis e Sousa, group leader of the Immunobiology Laboratory at the Francis Crick Institute in London, said in a news release.
"We've been working on this for many years so it's exciting to finally have evidence of a specific receptor which signals for phagosomes to burst."
Researchers are seeking to precisely trace and gain new insights into the path dead cell fragments take from infected cell to dendritic cell to T-cell. The researcher team hopes their analysis will reveal the ways this immune response pathway can be disrupted, as well as potential strategies for bolstering the mechanism.
"A better understanding of this process, which is fundamental to our immune system, could lead to new ways to exploit our body's natural defenses against infection and cancer," Reis e Sousa said.