Better vaccines with special cells

More effective vaccines will be developed as a result of research at the University of Dundee which is harnessing the skills of special cells in the body`s immune response process.

The Medical Research Council has awarded Professor Colin Watts and his colleagues £1.2 million to fund work on key cells in our immune system called dendritic cells. Colin is Professor of Immunology in the School of Life Sciences.

Although immunologists have known about dendritic cells for many years their importance in immunity has only recently been appreciated. They are now recognised as key messengers alerting other cells such as B and T lymphocytes to the presence of an infection. They are scattered widely in most tissues where they act as `sentinels` looking out for invaders.

When we get an infection or when we are vaccinated, they capture some of
the foreign material and travel to other parts of the body where they engage the lymphocytes that ultimately eliminate the infection. The `message` is delivered in the form of processed fragments of the infectious agent and so too is information about the type of infection that has occurred, viral, bacterial, parasitic etc. All this elicits the appropriate type of immune response.

Immunologists believe that these cells may hold the key to better vaccines for example against diseases like malaria and also perhaps against cancer.

Harnessing the potential of dendritic cells requires that we understand better some their basic features. This new work will allow a major expansion of the work on dendritic cells in Dundee being carried out by Colin Watts and his colleagues Alan Prescott and Michele West. They will be studying how dendritic cells capture foreign material, how they convert
it to a form that lymphocytes can recognise and how they switch from one
mode of operation to another as they migrate through the body. As our
understanding of the cells grows so to will the opportunities to make vaccines more effective in the future.

Colin Watts is Head of the Division of Cell Biology and Immunology at
the Wellcome Trust Biocentre. His laboratory has been based in Dundee since 1986 and is also supported by the Wellcome Trust and by collaborations with industry.

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