Public Release: 

'Nurse cells' make life and death decisions for infection-fighting cells

National Science Foundation

"Nurse cells" play an important role in deciding which developing infection-fighting cells, called T cells, live and which die, according to research funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and reported in the June issue of the journal Experimental Biology and Medicine.

The infection-fighting cells, known as thymocytes or T cells, live in the thymus, an organ in the upper portion of the chest. Loss of the thymus results in severe immunodeficiency and increased susceptibility to infection. The function of T cells produced by the thymus is to recognize harmful invaders. Once invaders have been identified, T cells then attempt to eliminate disease-infected cells.

"In early studies, it was suggested that thymic nurse cells only removed non-functional thymocytes," said Eve Barak, program director in NSF's Division of Molecular and Cellular Biology. "This research shows that nurse cells are performing a much bigger role in the thymus than we thought."

Thymic nurse cells were given their name because of their close relationship with thymocytes. These nurse cells have been reported to take up as many as 50 destined-to-die thymocytes into their own cell bodies.

Thymic nurse cells were discovered in 1980. Their existence was debated because many scientists found it difficult to believe that a cell could internalize another cell, said Jerry Guyden, a biologist at the City College of New York and lead researcher.

The thymus is present in most vertebrates, with a similar structure and function as the human thymus. Animal thymic tissue sold in butcher shops or at meat counters is known as sweetbread.

###

NSF-PR 07-059

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering, with an annual budget of $5.58 billion. NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 1,700 universities and institutions. Each year, NSF receives about 40,000 competitive requests for funding, and makes nearly 10,000 new funding awards. The NSF also awards over $400 million in professional and service contracts yearly.

Receive official NSF news electronically through the e-mail delivery and notification system, MyNSF (formerly the Custom News Service). To subscribe, visit http://www.nsf.gov/mynsf/ and fill in the information under "new users".

Useful NSF Web Sites:
NSF Home Page: http://www.nsf.gov
NSF News: http://www.nsf.gov/news/
For the News Media: http://www.nsf.gov/news/newsroom.jsp
Science and Engineering Statistics: http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/
Awards Searches: http://www.nsf.gov/awardsearch/

Disclaimer: AAAS and EurekAlert! are not responsible for the accuracy of news releases posted to EurekAlert! by contributing institutions or for the use of any information through the EurekAlert system.