NOV 09, 2023 10:30 PM PST

Human Disease Informs Immune Response

Humans have evolved over millions of years along with our inherent immunity. The immune system is a critical feature of our bodies which helps fight disease and protect us from foreign pathogens. Our immunity targets unknown proteins or mutated cells with sets of immune cells responsible for identifying and killing pathogens. These pathogens include infections, viruses, cancer, and other threats that disrupt functional regulation of the body, also known as homeostasis. A healthy, active immune system quickly and quietly destroys the infected cell or invading pathogen.

In order to carry out daily functions, various immune cells with different responsibilities are employed to cohesively coordinate a response. There are two types of immunity: innate and adaptive. Immune cells that attack pathogens first are known to be part of the innate immunity. Comparatively, cells that have a targeted response are known as adaptive immune cells. Innate immunity is non-specific and will try to kill anything that is foreign. Interestingly, innate immune cells bridge into the adaptive immune response by priming and activating adaptive immune cells. The adaptive immune system devises a purposeful attack on the pathogen by targeting a specific subset of the pathogen present. For example, tumor cells have different markers on them, which could help avoid detection. T cells, an immune cell responsible for killing or lysing infected cells, can recognize specific receptors on tumors to activate tumor lysis compared to innate cells. Both innate and adaptive immune systems are dependent on one another and must be present for a person to have healthy immunity. However, we still do not know how exactly our immune system works and why it sometimes fails.

Dr. Jennifer Oyler-Yaniv, and colleagues are currently trying to understand the immune system and the crosstalk between cells. Dr. Jennifer Oyler-Yaniv is an Assistant Professor of Systems Biology in the Blavatnik Institute at Harvard Medical School. She runs a lab with her partner, Dr. Alon Oyler-Yaniv in which they use cancer as the model to study cell-to-cell interactions.

In an interview Dr. Jennifer Oyler-Yaniv discusses her thoughts on the field as immunology gains interested after the COVID-19 pandemic. A major interest in her work includes how molecules signal to cells to communicate. These proteins that allow cell communication are known as cytokines and are essential to the body. However, they can also be detrimental and cause a spike in toxicity. This indicates that they need to be strictly regulated, particularly during disease. In addition to learning more about cell communication, they are investigating how cytokines determine the fate of what a cell does. Although cytokines are known to direct the action of cells, it is unclear how they regulate cell function.

Dr. Jennifer Oyler-Yaniv’s lab recently published a paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) on cytokines in melanoma. Interestingly, they found that pro-tumor cytokines are released throughout dense tissue, which results in a competition between diffusion of the molecules and consumption or the uptake of these molecules. The Oyler-Yaniv lab hopes to use this information to better screen for patients and more effectively predict who would likely benefit from cancer treatment.

Overall, the immune system maintains homeostasis by identifying and discarding foreign pathogens, and mutated cells. The communication and cell fate of these two systems is critical to build better therapies and improve patient overall survival.  


Published, Jennifer Oyler-Yaniv, PNAS, Blavatnik Institute, Harvard Medical School, Alon Oyler-Yaniv

About the Author
Master's (MA/MS/Other)
Greetings! I am a predoctoral trainee in the Department of Immunology at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center. I am passionate about tumor immunology, and hope to one day become an independent principal investigator.
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