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University of Basel

11 January 2021

Immune cells discovered in the lungs improve virus defense

a sick woman in bed reading a book
After recovering from the flu, certain immune cells in the lungs help ward off re-infection with similar influenza viruses. (Photo: Engin Akyurt, Unsplash)

A research team at the University of Basel has discovered immune cells resident in the lungs that persist long after a bout of flu. Experiments with mice have shown that these helper cells improve the immune response to reinfection by a different strain of the flu virus. The discovery could yield approaches to developing longer-lasting vaccinations against quickly-mutating viruses.

Microscopic image of lung tissue with memory T cells stained in magenta clustering with antibody-producing B cells in cyan.
Microscopic image of lung tissue with memory T cells stained in magenta clustering with antibody-producing B cells in cyan. (Image: Swarnalekha et al., Science Immunology)

In their study, the researchers describe two types of T helper cells in the lungs. One type releases signaling substances in case of reinfection to equip other immune cells with deadlier “weapons” in the fight against the pathogen. The other type, previously characterized primarily in lymphatic tissue and thought to be absent in lung tissue, assists antibody-producing immune cells (B cells) and localizes closely with them in the lung.

The researchers were able to show that the presence of these cells in the direct proximity of the antibody-producing B cells led to a more efficient immune response against a different flu virus.

Starting point for long-term vaccine protection

“These T helper cells could be an interesting starting point for longer-lasting flu vaccinations,” says David Schreiner, the other co-first author of the study, adding that it might be possible, for example, to supplement vaccines with agents that promote the formation of these T helper cells which migrate into the tissue. To that end, further research and development are needed.

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