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Study changes our understanding of the immune system

B cells are a vital component in our body’s immune system, generating protective antibodies when we have an infection or are vaccinated, as well as harmful antibodies in connection with allergies or autoimmune diseases. For many years, scientists have debated the mechanisms through which these cells are activated, since the predominant model for how immune recognition occurs could not explain all the observations.

Now, by examining the early step in the activation of B cells, a team of researchers led by Aarhus University in Denmark has found crucial new knowledge about the ways in which our bodies fight pathogens and react to vaccines. 

“Previously, it was believed that the antigens from, for example, viruses or vaccines would have to cross-bind a B-cell’s receptors on the cell surface. That’s what it says in all the textbooks. But now we have shown that even antigens that can only bind one receptor at a time are able to activate the B cells,” said study senior author Søren Degn, an associate professor of Biomedicine at Aarhus. 

“The result is significant because it represents a breakthrough in our understanding of how these important immune cells ‘recognize’ their enemies. Once we understand what is going on, we can imitate it in the design of new vaccines, to ensure maximum effect. One might say that our findings can make us better at mimicking the pathogenic microorganisms, and thus better at provoking or ‘cheating’ the immune system into generating a good immune response when we vaccinate.”

Since they clarify how receptors on the surface of cells send signal into the cells – a key biological process – these findings are important not only for immunology but also for cell biology in general. Moreover, in the long term, they could have important applications, including the design of better vaccines and the development of potential treatments for allergies and autoimmune disorders.

“We have shown that the way in which the activation of B cells has been explained over the past thirty or forty years is wrong. This is an important finding, because it opens the door to better vaccines and better treatment of a large group of diseases. When we understand how the B cells are activated, we can create better vaccines. In the slightly longer term, we may also be able to switch off B-cell activation in cases where it is harmful,” Degn concluded.

The study is published in the journal Nature.

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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