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29Aug 2014

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How memory cells protect the skin against viruses

Researchers from the Netherlands Cancer Institute have discovered how cells of the immune system that are present in the skin offer protection against renewed infections. Their study is published in the journal Science.

The study was supervised by prof. dr. Ton Schumacher. As an immunologist, he studies how different parts of the immune system work. Memory cells are cells from the immune system that are able to remember what harmful bacteria and viruses look like. This way, they can quickly come into action when they sense the presence of a previously encountered intruder. However, a lot of questions about the exact function of these cells remain unanswered.

Schumacher studied memory cells called CD8+ T cells. Schumacher: "We have known for some time that these cells remain in the skin after an infection and offer protection against renewed infections. But their numbers are small. So how is it possible they can offer protection to a large area of tissue?"

Alarm signal

Schumacher's team has now discovered that these memory cells protect the skin by sending out an 'alarm signal' when they again encounter a known intruder. This alarm system, consisting of so-called cytokines, tells large numbers of skin cells within the surrounding tissue to switch on a broad variety of anti-bacterial and anti-viral genes. The genes that become active when this alarm signal is received are, for instance, genes that can help prevent viruses from entering cells and thus prevent them from multiplying.

"One of the surprising things we found, is that the genes that are switched on offer protection to a broad range of bacteria and viruses", Schumacher says. So if, for instance, the memory cells recognize a herpes virus, they will switch on genes in the surrounding tissue that not only target the herpes virus but also other, unrelated types of intruders. Thus, this immune response offers a broad first line of defense against infections.


New insights like these are important for the prevention and treatment of a number of diseases. Schumacher himself works on the development of cancer immunotherapy, a new and promising type of cancer treatment in which the body's own immune system is stimulated to fight cancer cells. In the same issue of Science, a study by the research group of dr. David Masopust from the University of Minnesota appears. Using a slightly different approach, their work also demonstrates how memory T cells provide protection by sending out alarm signals. This group aims to use these new insights for the prevention of venereal diseases such as infections with herpes virus or HIV.

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