Natural Born Killers — How the Body’s Frontline Immune Cells Decide Which Cells to Destroy

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Comment: Natural Killer (NK) cells – a type of white blood cell – are a major component of the human body’s innate immune system. Over 1,000 NK cells are found in every drop of blood. They provide a fast frontline defence against tumours, viruses and bacterial infections, by latching onto and killing cells in the human body that are cancerous or are infected with a virus or a bacterial pathogen.

“Scientists have known for a long time that the proteins on the surface on Natural Killer cells are involved in answering the ‘to kill or not to kill?’ question, but we’ve not known exactly how these molecular cues are translated into the correct response. Our research has shown that information gleaned from its surface receptors tells the Natural Killer cell whether to stop patrolling and commence killing, or to move off quickly, and harmlessly, in search of another target.” says Professor Dan Davis from Imperial College London’s Department of Life Sciences

“Considering that NK cells play such an important part in our immune response to cancer and disease, relatively little is known about their functionality – how exactly they work and how they interact with the cells they encounter inside us. This study adds significantly to our understanding of how Natural Killer cells distinguish between healthy and diseased cells.” Says Dr Fiona Culley, lead author of the study from the National Heart and Lung Institute at Imperial.

Culley FJ, Johnson M, Evans JH, Kumar S, Crilly R, et al. 2009 Natural Killer Cell Signal Integration Balances Synapse Symmetry and Migration. PLoS Biol 7(7): e1000159. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1000159 View Full Paper

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