The Immune System and Natural Killer Cells: A Conversation with Lewis Lanier

Lewis Lanier

Who doesn’t want better drugs to vanquish infections? Still, we survive countless infections not because of drugs, but because of our own immune systems. Sometimes there’s a standoff with no clear winner – the hepatitis virus that is never cleared, but that doesn’t cause symptoms; the HIV infection that does not progress inevitably to AIDS; the herpes infection that rarely causes any irritation; the chicken pox virus that may or may not lead to painful shingles in later years.

Natural killer cells, highlighted in red, in the spleen of a virus-infected mouse. Other cells of the immune system that are shown include B cells, highlighted in blue, proliferating within a "germinal center," and virus-infected macrophages, highlighted in green. Credit: Mehrdad Matloubian and Karoline Hosiawa-Meagher, UCSF

Key cells that help keep the immune system from throwing in the towel against these lifelong foes may be the underappreciated, vividly named natural killer cells.

Lewis Lanier, PhD, and a postdoctoral fellow who works in his lab, Joseph Sun, PhD, have just published research offering the strongest evidence yet that these cells also have “memory.” This memory enables natural killer cells to better battle previously encountered microbial foes when a new outbreak occurs. This discovery might one day influence future vaccine development.

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