Contact: Chris Melvin
Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council
Are you as old as what you eat? Researchers learn how to rejuvenate
aging immune cells
Researchers from UCL (University College London) have demonstrated
how an interplay between nutrition, metabolism and immunity is
involved in the process of ageing.
The two new studies, supported by the Biotechnology and Biological
Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), could help to enhance our
immunity to disease through dietary intervention and help make
existing immune system therapies more effective.
As we age our immune systems decline. Older people suffer from
increased incidence and severity of both infections and cancer. In
addition, vaccination becomes less efficient with age.
In previous BBSRC funded work, Professor Arne Akbar’s group at UCL
showed that ageing in immune system cells known as ‘T lymphocytes’
was controlled by a molecule called ‘p38 MAPK’ that acts as a brake
to prevent certain cellular functions.
They found that this braking action could be reversed by using a
p38 MAPK inhibitor, suggesting the possibility of rejuvenating old
T cells using drug treatment.
In a new study published today in Nature Immunology the group shows
that p38 MAPK is activated by low nutrient levels, coupled with
signals associated with age, or senescence, within the cell.
It has been suspected for a long time that nutrition, metabolism
and immunity are linked and this paper provides a prototype
mechanism of how nutrient and senescence signals converge to
regulate the function of T lymphocytes.
The study also suggests that the function of old T lymphocytes
could be reconstituted by blocking one of several molecules
involved in the process. The research was conducted at UCL
alongside colleagues from Complejo Hospitalario de Navarra,
The second paper, published in The Journal of Clinical
Investigation, showed that blocking p38 MAPK boosted the fitness of
cells that had shown signs of ageing; improving the function of
mitochondria (the cellular batteries) and enhancing their ability
Extra energy for the cell to divide was generated by the recycling
of intracellular molecules, a process known as autophagy. This
highlights the existence of a common signaling pathway in
old/senescent T lymphocytes that controls their immune function as
well as metabolism, further underscoring the intimate association
between ageing and metabolism of T lymphocytes.
This study was conducted by researchers from UCL, Cancer Research
UK, University of Oxford and University of Tor Vergata, Rome,
Professor Arne Akbar said: “Our life expectancy at birth is now
twice as long as it was 150 years ago and our lifespans are on the
increase. Healthcare costs associated with ageing are immense and
there will be an increasing number of older people in our
population who will have a lower quality of life due in part to
immune decline. It is therefore essential to understand reasons why
immunity decreases and whether it is possible to counteract some of
“An important question is whether this knowledge can be used to
enhance immunity during ageing. Many drug companies have already
developed p38 inhibitors in attempts to treat inflammatory
diseases. One new possibility for their use is that these compounds
could be used to enhance immunity in older subjects. Another
possibility is that dietary instead of drug intervention could be
used to enhance immunity since metabolism and senescence are two
sides of the same coin.”
Notes to editors
Contact: Chris Melvin, BBSRC media officer, 01793 414694,
The kinase p38 activated by the metabolic regulator AMPK and
scaffold TAB1 drives the senescence of human T cells by Lanna et al
is published in Nature Immunology.
The study was funded by BBSRC and the Medical Research Council.
p38 signaling inhibits mTORC1-independent autophagy in senescent
human CD8+ T cells by Henson et al is published in The Journal of
The study was funded by BBSRC, the Medical Research Council,
National Institute for Health Research, Wellcome Trust, Lady Tata
Memorial Trust and Cancer Research UK.
Video: A UCL video about the research can be viewed at:
http://ift.tt/1rtT2E3. Please note this video will be
unlisted until the embargo lifts and should not be shared
publically until that time.
The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC)
invests in world-class bioscience research and training on behalf
of the UK public. Our aim is to further scientific knowledge, to
promote economic growth, wealth and job creation and to improve
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About UCL (University College London)
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