OHSU research suggests new strategy for protecting aging Americans against infectious disease

December 17, 2007

PORTLAND, Ore. - Researchers at Oregon Health & Science University have uncovered new information about the body's immune system in a study that suggests new strategies may be in order for protecting the country's aging population against disease. The research is published in the current edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

The research focused on an important component of the body's immune system, a certain type of white blood cell called naïve T-cells. These cells are called naive because they have no experience of encountering germs. However, once they encounter germs, they learn and adapt to become strong defenders of the organism. The cells play an important role in the vaccination process because vaccines, which contain either weakened or dead viruses, teach naïve T-cells how to recognize germs and prepare the body for fighting infectious diseases at a later date. Previous research shows that an individual's supply of naïve T-cells diminishes over their lifetime, meaning that in old age a person is more susceptible to infections such as the flu.

"Our research identified one actual process by which naïve T-cells are lost later in life," explained Janko Nikolich-Zugich, Ph.D., a senior scientist at the OHSU Vaccine and Gene Therapy Institute and the Oregon National Primate Research Center and a professor of molecular microbiology and immunology in the OHSU School of Medicine.

"Throughout our lives, naïve T-cells divide very slowly in our bodies. This helps maintain sufficient numbers of naïve T-cells while we are young. As we age, naïve T-cells are lost and the remaining ones speed up their division to make up for the losses in their numbers. Interestingly, after a certain point, this actually causes the numbers of naïve T-cells to dwindle over time. Our data shows that once the number of naïve T-cells drops below a critical point, the rapidly dividing naïve cells are very short lived. Based on this finding and other information, research suggests that some of the aging Americans may be better protected against disease by finding a way to jumpstart production of new naïve T-cells instead of through revaccination."

Nikolich-Zugich and his colleagues are now working on methods to encourage the body to restart production of naïve T-cells.

"Even a slight boost in the number of these important T-cells could protect an aging person against disease for several years," explained Nikolich-Zugich.
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The research was funded by U.S. Public Health Service Awards, The National Institute on Aging, a component of the National Institutes of Health; and Oregon National Primate Research Center funds.

About OHSU

Oregon Health & Science University is the state's only health and research university, and only academic health center. As Portland's largest employer and the fourth largest in Oregon (excluding government), OHSU's size contributes to its ability to provide many services and community support activities not found anywhere else in the state. It serves more than 184,000 patients, and is a conduit for learning for more than 3,900 students and trainees. OHSU is the source of more than 200 community outreach programs that bring health and education services to each county in the state.

Oregon Health & Science University

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