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Closing in on the immune system


Most of the images that researchers use to help them understand the immune system are essentially snapshots. Despite advances in medical technology, the images don't show much activity, which limits researchers' understanding of how the immune system works.

Cells could be right next to each other, for example, and give the appearance that they are interacting when they aren't. It illustrates how much is still unknown about the human immune system.

"A cell could seem like it's communicating with this other cell, but it's just there," says Deborah Fowell, University of Rochester associate professor of microbiology and immunology. "That really tells us nothing about how they interact in the tissue."

But a study under way at the UR could lead to new imagining techniques that would allow clinicians to view the immune system in real time — while it's actively responding to an infection or fighting a disease.

Having that ability, says lead researcher Fowell, could be a game-changer and someday allow clinicians to manipulate the immune system's response in some cases.

The work is being funded by a $9 million grant from the National Institutes of Health. Fowell's team at the UR consists of Minsoo Kim, an associate professor of microbiology and immunology; James Miller, professor of microbiology and immunology; and David Topham, also a professor of microbiology and immunology.

The researchers will use the university's Multiphoton Core Facility, which uses advanced technology to produce what researchers call "in vivo" or living imaging and analysis. Only a few immunology research groups in the country have access to the technology.

A better visualization technology will help researchers determine how the immune system operates in the skin, for example, compared to inside the lungs, Fowell says.

She says the structure of the tissue changes in different parts of the body. Knowing how the immune cells move and communicate through these different structures could help researchers develop more effective therapies, she says.

For example, with skin problems such as psoriasis, clinicians may want to stop the immune system's overreaction. But clinicians treating a patient with influenza may want to stimulate the immune system, Fowell says.

There are many areas where better visualization is needed, she says. Inflamed or infected tissue, allergic responses versus viral responses, and tumors are some examples.

The information gained from the research could help improve treatment for diseases such as influenza, HIV, certain cancers, rheumatoid arthritis, and vascular disease.

Fowell says the research is being conducted on mice and not on humans at this time.