Scientists create first full map of human immune system connectivity


By using advanced screening methods to tune into the communications taking place between individual cells, scientists have produced the first full connectivity map of the human immune system. This new wiring diagram will help researchers better understand the way different disease such as cancer progress, and work towards next-generation treatments that fortify the body’s defenses against them.

The breakthrough stems from new understanding of the signaling that takes place between different immune cells. Some of these patrol the body looking for signs of injury or disease, and then send messages to other immune cells to join the fight. One form of this communication takes place through proteins on surface of immune cells, which bind to receptor proteins on the surfaces of other cells.

Some of these receptor connections were already known to science, but researchers at the Wellcome Sanger Institute and ETH Zurich have been working to establish a more comprehensive diagram of them throughout the body. The achievement, which is decades in the making and only possible through recent technological advances , involved a technique called high-throughput surface receptor screening. This enabled the team to systematically map immune cell protein interactions on an unprecedented scale.

“Meticulously isolating and analyzing every immune cell and their interactions with others has given us the first map of the conversations between all of the immune cells in the human body,” said Jarrod Shilts, first author from the Wellcome Sanger Institute. “This is a huge step in understanding the inner workings of the immune system and will hopefully be utilized by researchers all around the world to help develop new therapies that work with the body’s defense mechanisms.”

This wiring diagram details how immune cells connect and communicate throughout the body and includes previously unknown interactions. This offers valuable new insights into the way the body organizes its immune defenses, and may help efforts to develop treatments that increase their ability to fight disease, with immunotherapy for cancer a prime example.

“Immunotherapies work with the body’s immune system to combat diseases such as cancer and autoimmunity,” said Professor Gavin Wright, senior author. “They can be incredibly effective in certain groups of people, but not all, leaving some people without treatment. Our research, a culmination of over two decades of work, could hold the key to understanding why these treatments are more effective in some groups, and how they could be adapted to ensure that as many people as possible can benefit from them.”

Further, the map could offer a blueprint for the prevention and treatment of autoimmune diseases, in which a person’s immune system misinterprets signals and attacks their own body. An ability to observe the impacts of different disease on the immune system in fine detail and tailor new treatments to target specific surface protein shapes up as a powerful new weapon in the realm of medical science.

“This research has produced an incredible new tool that can be used to help highlight which proteins and pathways would be beneficial to target in drug development,” said Professor Berend Snijder. “It can also give insight into whether a drug will have impact on other pathways, which can cause side effects. All of this information may help in the development of new therapies and could give crucial supporting evidence to help ensure that the most effective treatments are put into clinical trials.”

The research was published in the journal Nature.

New Atlas, 5 August 2022