Regulatory T cells, the "Blue Helmets" of the immune system
No matter where we are, we are surrounded by pathogens – bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites are everywhere. The human immune system has developed various strategies to control the spreading of pathogens within the body and to prevent their pathogenic effect to keep us healthy.
Our body produces immune cells (T and B lymphocytes) on a random basis to specifically recognize and attack the numerous pathogens. The other side of the coin is that this mechanism sometimes accidentally generates cells that recognize molecules of the own body instead of pathogens and thereby might cause autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes or multiple sclerosis.
The vast majority of those self-reactive immune cells are already eliminated during the process of their generation by a control procedure called "central tolerance". However, a number of self-reactive cells escapes the elimination and exists in any human. In order to prevent an attack on the body's own cells and, thus the generation of autoimmune diseases, the immune system has developed various regulatory mechanisms, so-called "peripheral tolerance mechanisms". As a part of the peripheral tolerance regulatory T cells (Tregs) are produced, which belong to the group of T lymphocytes and are also called "suppressor cells". You can imagine these cells as “blue helmet soldiers” of the immune system that are endowed with a robust mandate. Their function is to prevent immune reactions against the body's own tissues. Additionally, Tregs interfere in a de-escalating way within the body's defense and, by that, prevent excessive immune reactions.
Due to their highly effective suppressor mechanisms Tregs play an important role in fine-tuning the immune system: Their absence can lead to severe autoimmune diseases, whereas increased numbers of Tregs might suppress immune responses against invading pathogens or tumors. Tregs act much more specifically than currently used immune suppressive drugs.
For that reason, scientists try to develop therapies in which the blue helmets help to treat autoimmune diseases, graft-versus-host disease or improve the acceptance of grafts. Additionally, the deactivation of Tregs in order to allow an effective immune response against chronic infections or tumors is currently discussed. We aim to extend our knowledge about the origin of Tregs, their properties and their mechanisms of action in order to apply or modulate them for therapeutic purposes. This is the focus of the Department of Experimental Immunology.
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