Possible trigger for autoimmune diseases discovered

February 22, 2024

Immune cells must learn not to attack the body itself. Other autoimmune diseases may be linked to the failure of this new mechanism as well. T cells that attack the body's own molecules remaining intact and multiplying, on the other hand, can cause autoimmune diseases. In addition to the precursors of T cells, the thymus gland also contains other immune cells, the B cells. "The function of B cells in the thymus gland has been a mystery that has puzzled immunologists for many years," says Thomas Korn.

Immune cells must learn not to attack the body itself. A team of researchers from the Technical University of Munich (TUM) and the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich (LMU) has discovered a previously unknown mechanism behind this: other immune cells, the B cells, contribute to the "training" of the T cells in the thymus gland. If this process fails, autoimmune diseases can develop. The study confirms this for Neuromyelitis optica, a disease similar to Multiple Sclerosis. Other autoimmune diseases may be linked to the failure of this new mechanism as well.

In children and adolescents, the thymus gland functions as a "school for T cells". The organ in our chest is where the precursors of those T cells that would later attack the body's own cells are discarded. Epithelial cells in the thymus present a large number of molecules that occur in the body to the future T cells. If any of them reacts to one of these molecules, a self-destruction program is triggered. T cells that attack the body's own molecules remaining intact and multiplying, on the other hand, can cause autoimmune diseases.

In Nature, the team led by Thomas Korn, Professor of Experimental Neuroimmunology at TUM and a Principal Investigator in the SyNergy Cluster of Excellence, and Ludger Klein, Professor of Immunology at LMU’s Biomedical Center (BMC), describe another previously unknown mechanism behind this.

In addition to the precursors of T cells, the thymus gland also contains other immune cells, the B cells. They develop in the bone marrow but migrate to the thymus in early childhood. "The function of B cells in the thymus gland has been a mystery that has puzzled immunologists for many years," says Thomas Korn. The researchers have now been able to show for the first time that B cells play an active role in teaching T cells which targets not to attack.