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New micro-organ with vaccine memory discovered in body
September 2, 2018, 1:54 pm
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Researchers have identified a new 'micro-organ' within the body’s immune system that could potentially help in making more effective vaccines.

Scientists at Australia's Garvan Institute of Medical Research have identified the structure responsible for ‘remembering’ past infections and vaccinations that allow it to mount a rapid response against an infection the body has experienced before.

Scientists have known for ages that people exposed to an infection are often protected from getting the same infection again. Yet, major questions remained about how the body can fight back fast when it encounters an infection that it has been previously exposed to, either through a vaccine or through an earlier infection.

Using sophisticated ‘two-photon’ high-resolution 3D in-vivo microscopy, researchers were able to view the immune system of mice in action. The flattened structure, found extending over the surface of lymph nodes in mice, was packed with immune cells of many kinds and strategically positioned to detect infection early. Remarkably, researchers also saw the same structures inside sections of lymph nodes from human patients, suggesting that they help fight reinfection in people as well as in mice.

The new structure, named as SPF (subcapsular proliferative foci) had not been identified earlier as they are dynamic — appearing only when needed to fight an infection against which the body had previously been exposed to. Moreover, traditional microscopy usually looks at thin 2D sections of tissue that been chemically 'fixed' to provide a snapshot in time. The ability to view live response to an infection in 3-D using two-photon microscopy allowed researchers to overcome both the hurdles of 2D sections and transient nature of SPF.

Among the immune cells found clustered in the SPF were Memory B cells, which carry information about how best to attack the infection, and other cell types that act as helpers. The SPF structures are perfectly placed to fight infection fast and stop the pathogens before the disease takes hold in the body. When fighting bacteria that can double in number every 20 to 30 minutes, every moment counts. This explains why vaccinations are important as they train the immune system, so that it can make antibodies rapidly when an infection reappears.

The researchers also witnessed how Memory B cells transformed into infection-fighting plasma cells, which make the antibodies that recognize and fend off invading pathogens and protect the body from disease. Until now, the focus had been on making vaccines that can generate Memory B cells. The discovery of SPF suggests that the focus should also be on how Memory B cells are reactivated to make plasma cells, so that vaccines could be made more effective, and the process of making them more efficient. 

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