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04/22/2019 HYU News > Academics


A New Finding About T Cells May Cure More Diseases

Professor Choi Je-min (Department of Life Science)


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When our defense mechanisms attack our own body, it is because a type of white blood cell called T cells are failing to do their job. For a long time, there had been a solidified belief on how T cells work. Recently, however, Professor Choi Je-min (Department of Life Science) proved this wrong, suggesting a correct insight into the mechanism behind T cells and making a prediction about the probability of finding an effective cure.
Professor Choi Je-min (Department of Life Science) is explaining the correct mechanisms behind T cells.

T cells normally play a central role in our immune system. They have a notably sophisticated battle technique, because although the cells number up to 10 billion, a single cell focuses on defeating only one specific antigen. That is, when a virus enters our body, only one cell out of the myriad notices and prepares to fight, similar to a highly-specialized sniper. The rest of the cells stand by, thereby being called bystander T cells.

Nevertheless, T cells malfunction from time to time. They recognize our own body as an enemy, even attacking harmless cells. This causes autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis. Researchers used to believe that, based on how T cells work, only one T cell would be responsible for the malfunctions as well.

Choi raised the crucial question of whether this is actually true or not. "Do all the other T cells (9,999,999,999 in number) absolutely stand by while this happens?"
Choi (center) and his students in their laboratory

Choi found out that this is not the case. In fact, the bystander T cells also play a crucial role in causing autoimmune diseases. Choi and his students performed multiple experiments to prove this fact. For one of them, they injected a nerve cell antigen into a mouse and expected to find only the type of T cell responsible for the specific antigen to be found in the area of injection. Surprisingly, they found only 4 percent of T cells were antigen-specific cells. 95.31 percent were bystander T cells. Choi explains that this means, unlike the traditional thinking, bystander T cells contribute to attacking antigens they are not responsible for, and therefore, contribute to causing autoimmune diseases.
Choi's finding is important in that it gives us a new, more correct insight into our body’s immune system. Also, it may contribute immensely to new medicines being developed for the treatment of autoimmune diseases. “Whereas the previous medicines focused on controlling only the antigen-specific T cells, our finding suggests that we should also take into account the bystander T cells to cure the disease,” explained Choi. Likewise, Choi hopes the finding will become the key to understanding more about the human body and ultimately lead to the development of more effective medicines.

Lim Ji-woo
Photos by Park Geun-hyung
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