Infections, Injuries, and Pain
Newswise — A UCLA research team has identified a new paradigm for understanding the regulation of the immune system, potentially paving the way for new approaches to treating infections and immune-related diseases such as type 1 diabetes and certain cancers. The laboratory findings, reported in the vol. 217 no. 8. issue of the peer-reviewed Journal of Experimental Medicine, help to explain a phenomenon that has been observed since antiquity: In the first century AD, the Roman scholar Celsus described that infections and injuries created a characteristic pattern of warmth, pain, redness, and especially rigidity (swelling). Why tissues become mechanically rigid and how this rigidity affects immune-system activity during infections has never been understood.
Rigidity of tissues is something that is well known to oncologists (the word derives from the Greek “oncos,” meaning swelling). The word “tumor” means swollen or rigid in Latin, and studies began years ago to understand the links between “solid” tumors and the mechanical cues provided to the cancer cells living inside the tumor. Those works established that cancer cells respond to stiffness formed by the stiff collagen matrix surrounding the cells by acting more aggressively. A similar process occurs in stem cells — in which for instance, differences in mechanical rigidity provide cues for bone stem cells to create bone, and cartilage stem cells to produce cartilage. Both of these processes are known to be driven by a molecule known as yes-associated protein, or YAP.
The discovery of the pivotal role played by YAP in regulating the immune response could lead to the development of new treatments for infections, autoimmune disorders and solid cancers. “This is a whole new pathway that can be targeted to drive up immune responses in order to better fight infections, or slow down immune activity in conditions such as diabetes,” Dr. Butte said. “More than just pointing to YAP as a molecule that gives the immune system a cue as to what to do next, our study identifies a new molecular pathway that is actionable for future research.”
Blocking how the immune cells sense tissue rigidity by targeting YAP could help to slow the injury caused by T cells in autoimmune diseases like diabetes. In certain infections and cancers, a potentially effective strategy could involve accentuating the immune response by harnessing YAP’s ability to sense the mechanical stiffness of tissues. Although YAP’s role in cancer wasn’t part of the current study, Dr. Butte and his colleagues are planning follow-up research to determine whether the process they identified is applicable to solid tumors known to be mechanically rigid, such as melanoma, pancreatic cancer, and breast cancer.
Read the full press release on Newswise.
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