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CRI Fellow’s Findings Will Rewrite Textbooks, CRI Scientific Advisors Say

A recent report authored by CRI postdoctoral fellow Dr. Joseph Sun is challenging orthodox immunology’s view of an entire subset of innate immune cells, called Natural Killer (NK) cells, prompting researchers to rethink how they might use NK cells to protect against infection and cancer. According to two CRI scientific advisors close to the study, the findings will require immunology textbooks to be amended to incorporate these breakthrough findings.

In the report, published earlier this month in the journal Nature and featured in USA Today, Sun and colleagues in the University of California, San Francisco lab of Dr. Lewis Lanier, a CRI Scientific Advisory Council member, 2002 Coley Award winner, and co-author on the study, give evidence that NK cells—among the immune system’s first-line responders to bacterial and viral infection—possess “memory” and longevity, characteristics traditionally associated with cells of the adaptive immune system and not the innate immune system.

Immune cell memory and longevity are what make possible prophylactic vaccination against infectious disease and enable a rapid immune response to re-exposure to previously encountered pathogens. CRI researchers have also shown that memory is important to long-term protection against cancer. In a mouse model of cytomegalovirus viral infection, a virus commonly found in humans, the team of researchers was able to show evidence that NK cells remember and respond rapidly to viral re-infection in much the same way that adaptive immune cells respond. They were also able to transfer this virus-specific immune memory into other newly infected mice by injecting them with NK cells from previously exposed mice.

According to Lanier, it was a 2006 Nature report by CRI Scientific Advisory Council member Dr. Ulrich von Andrian of Harvard University showing that NK cells live up to a month in mice—longer than suspected—and could elicit immune recall independent of adaptive immune cells, that prompted his lab to reexamine the possibility of NK cell memory. Both Lanier and von Andrian state that immunology textbooks will need to be amended to incorporate these breakthrough findings.

In recognition of his outstanding accomplishments, the University of California, San Francisco recently awarded Dr. Sun the 2009 Dean’s Postdoctoral Prize. According to the UCSF announcement, “the purpose of the award is to recognize the outstanding creative and independent research efforts of postdoctoral scholars and to highlight the contributions that postdoctoral scholars make to the scientific community.”

We at CRI congratulate Dr. Sun and colleagues on their outstanding accomplishments.

Reference: Sun JC, Beilke JN, Lanier LL. Adaptive immune features of natural killer cells. Nature. 2009 Jan 29;457(7229):557-61. Epub 2009 Jan 11.

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Brian Brewer, Director of Communications
Cancer Research Institute
(212) 688-7515 or [email protected]

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