These Cells Hold The Key To Fighting Infections In Old Age | WGLT

These Cells Hold The Key To Fighting Infections In Old Age

Mar 2, 2018

Scientists call them the "unsung heroes" of the human body. They are B cells—white blood cells that help ward off viruses and infection. But as our bodies age, so does the effectiveness of these cells.

Illinois State University immunology professor Laura Vogel has spent years studying B cells. She will report on her work Tuesday evening at Illinois State University. 

She'll also reveal why the long-living turtle is proving to be key to the study of B cells.

"As we get older, our immune system function declines and we are more susceptible to infection and cancer. The number of cells doesn't change much in our older years,  but their function declines. It is called immunosenescence. It is almost as if the cells are asleep," Vogel said.

Her lab is looking into whether there is a therapy or molecule or cell replacement that older people can receive to help their immune systems work better. 

A microscopic image of B cells, known as the body's "unsung heroes" for their infection fighting ability.
Credit Illinois State University Immunology Laboratory

"We are particularly interested in B cells and antibody protection in your gut that protect you from food-borne illnesses and illnesses you might get from the air in the respiratory tract," she said.


B cells serve a unique purpose. People born without them contract severe infections early in life.

'If you have heard of the 'bubble boy' or children who have to live in sterile environments, that is because they lack these B cells and antibody molecules. So we know this function is important and it is unique to B cells," Vogel said. "It's one of the reasons why they are really the unsung heroes of immune system."

Vogel's research tries to identify which B cells might be defective. 

"By identifying what cells are not functioning, we might be able to make a drug therapy and fix the cells you have, or we give you a transplant to replace the defective cells and have the new cells established in an older individual," Vogel said.

As the world population ages, fighting infectious and viral diseases will become more important.
Credit World Health Organization

There are various ways to generate B cells. "You can generate bone marrow stem cells, which are cells that replenish  basically your entire immune system," Vogel said.

"We might also be able to purify B cells from a blood donation from a young person and give you B cells that have been formed that way."

She said those options are "further down the road."

The turtle is proving a key player in her research.

Turtles are long-living reptiles. "They live in an environment where they are constantly challenged by pathogens,  but we rarely see a sick turtle," Vogel said.

The research already has produced some interesting discoveries. "We discovered that B cells in turtles have a special function. They engulf and digest pathogens. I like to think of that as like a Pac Man. They gobble up bacteria and digest them."

This led researchers to look for a subset of B cells that have that  same capability in humans.

"That was a very exciting discovery for us," Vogel said.

Although AIDs is not usually associated with age, Vogel said the research might have applications for treating the disease since AIDS can affect B cell immune responses.


Vogel said it might be another 10 to 15 years before these discoveries result in clinical applications. "We hope down the road some of these findings will prove something a drug company will be interested in," she said. Any new therapies that result might be able to replace current antibiotics.

Vogel's talk, "A Fantastic Voyage: B Cells, The Unsung Heroes of the Immune System," will be at 7 p.m. Tuesday in the Old Main Room of ISU's Bone Student Center.

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