What shoots our immune system into fighting mode when a parasitic infection exists in the gut? New research discovers that specialised cells known as tuft cells have an important role—by “tasting” the existence of intestinal parasites and putting our immune system into motion, fighting against them.
The study, mentioned in an article published on the 2nd of February 2016 in Science, is vital, said senior author Wendy Garrett, Melvin J. and Geraldine L. Glimcher. Having more knowledge about the interaction between tuft cells and our immune system might help scientists around the world come up with new ways to treat diseases caused by parasites such as roundworm, giardiasis and hookworm, which affect several of people worldwide— especially children—which cause symptoms such as nausea , diarrhea, bloating, vomiting and pain, and could also contribute to weight loss as well as malnutrition.
Scientists already have a good background tuft cells, which have firm bristles and branch out from the intestinal wall in batches, since the mid-1950s. But until recently their job has been vague.
Garrett’s study gave new information on tuft cells. “It’s pretty cool that three groups revealed different information about these cells at the same time, by coincidence,” she said. “We all found that tuft cells have a crucial role in our immune system.”
Garrett’s research lab focuses on the interaction between our gastrointestinal immune system and the microbes and parasites that thrive in the gut in health, inflammatory bowel disease, and colorectal cancer. Her team demonstrated that eventhough tuft cells don’t really “taste” things, they use a process known as “taste chemosensation.” This is very similar to the process by which our tongue taste buds spot different flavors. In the gut, such a process permits tuft cells to detect various parasites such as helminths (worms) and protozoa, and to then send out signals to other cells to start an immune response.
The researchers were able to locate tuft cells’ function by relating two groups of mice infected with parasites. The mice in one group did not have key proteins that tuft cells utilise to send messages to other cells. Five weeks later, the mice that lacked the protein had additional worms than the other mice. The normal mice also created extra tuft cells and had higher levels of a protein which triggers immune responses to parasites (interleukin-25).
Infections which are usually caused by helminthes as well as protozoa are usually treated with antiparasitic medicines. The new finding however could help lead to alternative treatments, Garrett mentioned. “If we can have a good understanding out how to engage ‘taste chemosensation’ in tuft cells—in principle, to understand what the parasites are generating that tuft cells ‘taste’—there is a chance we could help improve the immune system,” she mentioned.
Garrett also said that she is enthusiastic about the implications of their new results. “That parasite-derived molecules can actually be tasted—and that tuft cells in the gut do this—gives us new perspective about how our organisms interact with the microbes in our world,” she mentioned.
Also published on Medium.