How Cells Die Determines Whether Immune System Mounts Response
— Every moment we live, cells in our bodies are dying. Depending on what type of reaction causes death symptoms will vary. One type of cell death activates an immune response while another type doesn't. Now researchers at l in Memphis have figured out how some dying cells signal the immune system. They say the finding eventually could have important implications in the treatment of autoimmune diseases and cancer.
The researchers have found that a molecule, named high mobility group box-1 protein (HMGB1), which cells release when they die, seems to determine whether the immune system is alerted. But what happens to HMGB1 after it's made and whether the immune system ever gets the signal depends on how the cell dies.
"Cells die mainly in two general ways: apoptosis, or programmed cell death, and necrosis, which results from injuries and infections,". "In general, you don't want the immune system to respond to apoptosis, but we do want an immune response following necrosis because necrotic death can be a sign of infection. Necrotic cells release components to stimulate the immune system, and one is the HMGB1molecule."
Apoptosis normally is a healthy process that occurs all the time, so it shouldn't activate an immune response.
"Apoptosis is an orderly death that occurs during development and tissue turnover, and it's an important process that allows us to replace old, worn-out cells with fresh, new ones,". "We don't need the immune system paying attention as our cells die through apoptosis. When it does react to apoptosis, we can develop autoimmunity, as in diabetes, arthritis and other autoimmune diseases in which the immune system will attack the 'self.'"
The researchers say scientists had believed that necrotic cells released HMGB1 whereas apoptotic cells did not. The problem is that experiments in Ferguson's laboratory and elsewhere have found that in some cases, apoptotic cells also release the HMGB1 protein.
"Whether they were apoptotic or necrotic, we found that dying cells were releasing the protein, but the cells that were undergoing apoptosis still weren't stimulating the immune system," Ferguson says. "So our question was, 'If the molecule being released is the same, why is it stimulating the immune system in one situation and not in another?'"
Further experiments showed that when they die, apoptotic cells also produce free radicals, and those reactive oxygen free radicals modify HMGB1 to prevent it from stimulating the immune system. In necrosis, no free radicals are produced, so HMGB1 both signals and stimulates an immune system response.