The Long Arm of the Immune System; Tackling Major Killers: Cancer; Exclusive Online Issues; by Jacques Banchereau; 8 Page(s)
They lie buried-their long, tentacle like arms outstretched-in all the tissues of our bodies that interact with the environment. In the lining of our nose and lungs, lest we inhale the influenza virus in a crowded subway car. In our gastrointestinal tract, to alert our immune system if we swallow a dose of salmonella bacteria. And most important, in our skin, where they lie in wait as stealthy sentinels should microbes breach the leathery fortress of our epidermis.
They are dendritic cells, a class of white blood cells that encompasses some of the least understood but most fascinating actors in the immune system. Over the past several years, researchers have begun to unravel the mysteries of how dendritic cells educate the immune system about what belongs in the body and what is foreign and potentially dangerous. Intriguingly, they have found that dendritic cells initiate and control the overall immune response. For instance, the cells are crucial for establishing immunological "memory," which is the basis of all vaccines. Indeed, physicians, including those at a number of biotechnology companies, are taking advantage of the role that dendritic cells play in immunization by "vaccinating" cancer patients with dendritic cells loaded with bits of their own tumors to activate their immune system against their cancer. Dendritic cells are also responsible for the phenomenon of immune tolerance, the process through which the immune system learns not to attack other components of the body.