White blood cells are the principle mediators of immune system function, yet efforts to influence their role in illness have been hampered due to a lack of understanding of the surface structure of these cells - until now. Dartmouth Medical School researchers characterize the structure of white blood cells and challenge assumptions about how a certain immunodeficiency disorder affects the white blood cell surface in the September 1 issue of Blood, the journal of the American Society of Hematology. Their findings could have a large impact on treatments for autoimmune diseases such as diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis and lupus, as well as AIDS and cancer metastasis.
The researchers, led by Henry N. Higgs, assistant professor of biochemistry at Dartmouth Medical School used scanning electron microscopy to analyze the finger-like projections coating white blood cells known as microvilli. "If you asked most medical scientists what a white blood cell looked like they would say a smooth sphere that floats around in the blood, but, in fact, they are not smooth at all - they have these wonderful invaginations and protrusions coming off of them," explained Higgs, who is also a member of the Immunology and Cancer Immunotherapy Research Program at Norris Cotton Cancer Center and a member of the program in immunology.
Higgs and his lab focused much of their work on lymphocytes a type of white blood cell that have a number of roles in the immune system, including the production of antibodies and other substances that fight infection and disease. An essential feature of lymphocytes ability to mount an immune response is their ability to migrate from the blood into infected tissues. The process of squeezing between the cells lining blood vessel walls and into the surrounding tissue is known as extravasation. Research indicates that microvilli may play a key role in this process. They allow white blood cells hurtling through the bloodstream at speeds analogous to a car traveling at 500 miles per hour to attach to the vessel wall and roll to a stop.
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