According to a new study by scientists at UC San Francisco, the immune system's T cells, while coordinating responses to diseases and vaccines, act like honey bees sharing information about the best honey sources.
"In the morning, each bee goes looking individually for a sugar source, then comes back to the hive and does a dance in front of the other bees describing the location of what it's found, which helps the hive decide collectively where the best source is," said senior scientist Matthew Krummel, PhD, a UCSF professor of pathology.
They don't bust the same moves as bees, but T cells gather together and communicate essential information to each other in a similar way, Krummel said, thereby helping to coordinate immune responses directed against invading pathogens. This discovery might lead to useful therapeutic interventions to fight disease, according to Krummel.
Krummel's lab team found that after individual T cells survey lymph nodes and sample foreign matter, such as vaccines, bacteria or viruses, they come together as a group during what he and his team call the "critical differentiation period." This occurs several hours to one day after exposure.
"They cluster together for the purpose of sharing information, transmitting what they've discovered about the new pathogen or vaccine, which in turn helps the immune system mount a coordinated response to the foreign matter," Krummel said.
The discovery is important, Krummel said, because it sheds light on an aspect of medicine that has long been obscure: how vaccines work. "We know that they are effective for years after a vaccination, but we don't know why. It seems that T-cell aggregation is a profound part of the reason."
Krummel's team found that the critical differentiation period is essential to the formation of what is known as a "memory pool," the mechanism by which the immune system recognizes a pathogen to which it had been exposed months or years previously.