Dr. Silke Paust, an assistant professor of human immunobiology at Baylor College of Medicine, recently won the prestigious “Women and Diversity Paper of the Year” award from the Society for Leukocyte Biology.
Her award-winning study titled, “Critical role for the chemokine receptor CXCR6 in NK cell-mediated antigen-specific memory of haptens and viruses” explores the long-lived immunological memory of natural killer cells in the liver and their potential to help scientists develop targeted vaccines to treat infection and disease.
“Natural killer cells have an immunological memory that allows for rapid and enhanced responses when the body is re-invaded by the same pathogen,” said Paust, the lead author of the study. “In order for the immune system to remember an antigen-specific vaccine, it’s important to have some aspect of the immune system that persists for a long period of time.”
Natural killer cells, a subset of white blood cells that target cancer cells and a wide variety of infectious microbes, binds to their target and deliver a lethal burst of toxins that puncture holes in the membrane of infected cells, killing them instantly.
In their study, Paust and her colleagues injected laboratory mice with influenza and HIV vaccines to test whether natural killer cells in the liver remembered previous antigen-specific vaccinations. They found that specific subsets of natural killer cells found in the mouse liver developed long-lived and highly specific memory to a variety of antigens, which is critical to mediating a sufficient and protective immune response of protection.
When our bodies are exposed to a virus or other foreign invader, the immune system activates many immune cells to fight off infection. After the threat has passed, most of the cells die, however, memory natural killer cells remain in the body, similarly to memory T and B cells. When encountered by the same antigen again, memory immune cells respond rapidly resulting in a more powerful immune response.
Through Paust’s research, an additional cell type that can now be targeted for vaccination has been identified. “Natural killer cells are attractive targets for therapeutic intervention for the prevention and treatment of human disease, such as cancers and viral infection,” said Paust.
Paust will present her research at the 2014 Society for Leukocyte Biology and the International Endotoxin and Innate Immunity Society Joint Conference which will be held October 23 – 25 in Salt Lake City, Utah.