Sunnybrook Magazine – Fall 2018

This discovery may help Sunnybrook researchers boost immunity

Michele Anderoon

(Photography by Kevin Van Paassen)

Sunnybrook has found a crucial ingredient in the development of T-cells.

T-cells are the soldiers of our immune system that seek out and attack the tiny invaders that threaten our health. Without this microscopic army, the battle against bacteria, viruses and other pathogens could quickly turn deadly. But not every army is equal in strength and efficiency. In the pursuit of engineering T-cells for people with weakened immune systems, Sunnybrook scientists used gene-editing technology to single out which gene helps our bodies produce these life-saving cells.

The key to production is a protein known as HEB, which can stimulate various genes throughout cell development. HEB’s ultimate power, though, is activating T-cell genes and deactivating others that could impact their growth.

“T-cells can already be engineered from stem cells, but they cannot yet be produced at the quantity and purity needed to make them beneficial for clinical use,” says Michele Anderson, co-author of the study published in Stem Cell Reports, a senior scientist at Sunnybrook Research Institute and an associate professor in the Department of Immunology at the University of Toronto. “By being able to engineer a system to produce large numbers of pure T-cells, we’d be able to put them into people who need them – people with AIDS, those who are undergoing radiation therapy or bone marrow transplants, or anyone, really, with an immunodeficiency.”

Anderson and her colleagues are now looking at how they can harness the power of HEB to create enough T-cells to benefit humans. She notes that future steps also include analyzing other diseases that could be affected by HEB, potentially leading to new treatments for common illnesses, such as heart disease.