Campus News

Professor's Research Could Lead to Vaccines Against Tumors and Viruses

Story posted November 10, 1999

Shannon Turley, visiting assistant professor of biology, is involved in research that could unlock some important mysteries of the human immune system. The results could lead to immunizations against tumors and viruses.

She shared some of her findings at a recent faculty seminar.

The body’s fight against infection begins in dendritic cells, which wait in the periphery of the body - in the skin, lungs, gut - for invasion by pathogens. When a pathogen appears, it is absorbed by the dendritic cell, broken down and carried to the lymph system to be destroyed. When the system works well, the body heals itself. When crippled by AIDS or lupus, the system falls apart.

In the process, the dendritic cell itself is transformed. That transformation has been the subject of years of research by Turley and her colleagues.

More specifically, the dendritic cell absorbs the pathogen and breaks it down into peptides, which are small portions of proteins. These peptides are encapsulated in the interior of the dendritic cell, and transferred by special molecules to the outer membrane. While this is happening, the dendritic cell is "maturing" and moving toward the lymphoid organ.

As the dendritic cell matures, it transforms from the shape of a sand dollar to the shape of a many-tentacled jellyfish. Those tentacles search for T cells that coincide with that particular pathogen. When they are found, the dendritic cell and the T cell form an "immunological synapse," which activates the T cell and makes it go to work eliminating the pathogen.

In her research, Turley and her colleagues froze dendritic cells in the middle of their maturation process to record their shape and contents, something that had not been done before. This revealed the presence of previously unknown molecules that could help scientists develop new vaccines.

The long-term goal is to be able to remove the dendritic cells from the body, manipulate them and re-inject them in the form of vaccines.

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