Telomeres, structures that cap the ends of cells' chromosomes, grow shorter with each round of cell division unless a specialized enzyme replenishes them. Maintaining telomeres is thought to be important for healthy aging and cancer prevention.
By this measure, T cells, or white blood cells, from patients with the autoimmune disease rheumatoid arthritis are worn out and prematurely aged, scientists at Emory University School of Medicine have discovered.
Compared with cells from healthy people, T cells from patients with rheumatoid arthritis have trouble turning on the enzyme that replenishes telomeres, they found. Reversing this defect could possibly help people prone to the disease maintain a balanced immune system.
The results are published online this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
In rheumatoid arthritis, T cells are chronically over-stimulated, invading the tissue of the joints and causing painful inflammation. This derangement can be seen as a result of the loss of the immune system's ability to discriminate friend from foe, says senior author Cornelia Weyand, MD, PhD, co-director of the Kathleen B. and Mason I. Lowance Center for Human Immunology at Emory University.
In childhood, new T cells are continually produced in the thymus, she says. But after about age 40, the thymus "involutes" or shrinks and ceases to function. After that, the immune system has to make do with the pool of T cells it already has.
"What we see in rheumatoid arthritis is an aged and more restricted T cell repertoire," she says. "This biases the immune system toward autoimmunity."
Weyand, postdoctoral fellow Hiroshi Fujii, MD, PhD, and their colleagues were interested in mechanisms of T cells' premature aging, because scientists had previously observed that in rheumatoid arthritis, T cells tend to shift the molecules on their surface and function differently.
They found the an
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