The first-ever complete map of immune system connections offers new pathways to therapies

The map is particularly vital to developing immunotherapies.
Loukia Papadopoulos
The human immune system is
  • The map is the first of its kind ever created.
  • It features each conversation taking place between immune cells.
  • It may be the key to developing better treatments.

The human immune system consists of an amazing network of specialized cells. Some of these travel through the body to scan for signs of injury or disease and communicate any threats to other cells in order to release an immune response. This so-called cell-​to-cell signaling is done through proteins on the surfaces of cells that bind to the matching ‘receptor’ proteins on the surfaces of other cells.

Understanding the immune system's receptor connections

Understanding these processes and being able to track them is key for scientists and doctors seeking to treat patients efficiently. However, thus far, scientists and clinicians only had an incomplete map and, therefore, a vague understanding of these receptor connections.

Researchers from the Wellcome Sanger Institute (UK) and ETH Zurich have now developed a first-of-its-kind comprehensive map of the network of connections that make up the human immune system, clearly showcasing how immune cells link up and communicate. The new map highlights the individual cell types, messengers, and relative speed of each conversation taking place between immune cells.

The tool could revolutionize how researchers approach drug development and treatment therapies.

The first-ever complete map of immune system connections offers new pathways to therapies
Immune cells.
Yannik Severin, Julien Mena, Berend Snijder / ETH Zürich

“This research has produced an incredible new tool that can be used to help highlight which proteins and pathways would be beneficial to target in drug development. It can also give insight into whether a drug will have an impact on other pathways, which can cause side effects,” said Professor Berend Snijder, a co-author and professor from the Institute of Molecular Systems Biology at ETH Zürich.

Treatments that enhance the immune system

The understanding that the new map provides is particularly vital to developing treatments that enhance the immune system in order to fight disease, known as immunotherapies. This is because the map also highlights the discovery of many previously unknown interactions that together shed light on the organization of the body’s immune defenses.

“Immunotherapies have already demonstrated great potential in treating disease, most notably with certain cancers. However, these only work well in certain groups of patients and for particular conditions. Knowing the map of immune receptor connections could help explain why immunotherapies sometimes only work in a subset of patients and offer new targets for designing future immunotherapies that may work for patients who currently do not benefit from these treatments,” state the researchers in their press release.

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Finally, last but not least, the map will also provide a new understanding of the cell-​to-cell signals happening in the immune system that trigger autoimmune diseases, which are caused when the body mistakes internal signals and attacks itself.

The research is published in Nature magazine.