Immune cells swap snacks and trade information to do their jobs. Can we help them be more effective?

Dr. Russell Jones spends a lot of time thinking about what our cells eat.

As a scientist who studies the interaction between the immune system and metabolism, his interest in cellular diet is more than just an idle curiosity.

“Metabolism fuels every aspect of the body, including the immune cells that fight disease and infection on our behalf,” Jones says. “Understanding the interaction between these two critical systems could help us develop new dietary strategies to supercharge immune cells against cancer, infection and other threats.”

Dr. Russell Jones, Van Andel Institute

This goal is an important one. Nutrition deeply influences health and disease risk but there still is a laundry list of unanswered questions about the nuances of this relationship.

For Jones, two of these questions are particularly important:

Do certain cells prefer certain nutrients?

And if so, can we translate this knowledge into tailored nutrition strategies to better support treatments for disease?

All about immunity

The immune system is the body’s defense against illness and injury. It is made up of many different cells that work together to combat threats, speed healing and keep us healthy.

To do this, immune cells “talk” to each other using chemical messengers. But that’s not the only way they communicate — they also share nutrients, which can be used to help the cells better do their jobs.

“In many ways, our immune cells are like kids at the lunch table,” Jones says. “They trade snacks, they share information, they get sluggish if they don’t get the right nutrients. We want to know how they do this, if certain cells prefer particular nutrients and if providing those nutrients help the cells work better.”

Dr. Connie Krawczyk, Van Andel Institute

Now, a new initiative led by Jones and immunology expert Dr. Connie Krawczyk is seeking answers. Their project focuses on two types of immune cells: dendritic cells and T cells. Together, these cells regulate our adaptive immunity — that is, the body’s ability to identify, combat and remember new threats.

Here’s the thing though: We know that these two critical cell types interact, share nutrients and communicate but we don’t know exactly how they do it.

Part of the problem is technical. Immune cells are usually studied in isolation, which offers an incomplete picture of how they do their jobs.

So, Jones and Krawczyk did what scientists do best — come up with an out-of-the-box way to figure out how immune cells interact and determine if nutrient sharing optimizes their function.

An innovative approach

Studying complex systems like immunity and metabolism is tough. The cells and molecules that make up these systems do not act alone — their function depends on interactions with each other, often in ways that can be difficult to pinpoint and measure.  

As we learn more and as technology improves, scientists like Jones and Krawczyk can break down longstanding barriers and develop new tools to help push the frontiers of knowledge.

And that’s exactly what their teams are working on, thanks to inspiration from an unexpected place: biofuels.

Biofuels are exactly what their name implies: fuel sources that are derived from biological materials like corn. It’s not as simple as shoving a corn cob or a handful of grass clippings into a gas tank (and we beg you not to try). Instead, scientists and engineers have developed processes to break down and refine plant matter into fuels.

Related: Read more about VAI’s metabolism research ➔

This process essentially mirrors how metabolism works in the body, which enabled Jones, Krawczyk and their teams to design a similar approach to study how immune cells communicate and share resources like nutrients. The work was funded in part by a grant from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative as part of an initiative to develop new ways to measure and evaluate metabolism.

If successful, the new method will pave the way for fresh research into metabolism and nutrition while also providing the data needed to understand how immune cells communicate through swapping nutrients.

“The possibilities are endless,” Jones says. “Pinpointing which nutrients T cells like and which ones dendritic cells like and identifying how they share those resources would be a game-changer.”

This project has been made possible in part by a grant from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative DAF, an advised fund of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative DAF.