Magazine article Science News

Role Change: Mast Cells Show an Anti-Inflammatory Side

Magazine article Science News

Role Change: Mast Cells Show an Anti-Inflammatory Side

Article excerpt

As anyone who has reacted to poison ivy can attest, the plant can induce maddeningly itchy skin. Researchers have now found that a cell once thought to be one of the chief perpetrators of this immune overreaction may actually keep the reaction from getting out of hand.


Mast cells make proteins that contribute to the inflammation that characterizes allergic reactions. The cells are part of the innate immune system, the frontline defense that rushes inflammatory cells and proteins to scenes of irritation or injury. Although mast cells play a valuable role in fighting bacteria and other pathogens, their conduct in allergic reactions appears rather like throwing gasoline on a fire.

A study in mice now shows that mast cells produce a helpful immune protein a few days after skin contact with urushiol, the key culprit in poison ivy and its partners in skin crime, poison oak and poison sumac. The protein, called interleukin-10, ratchets down the inflammatory reaction, says study coauthor Stephen J. Galli, a pathologist at Stanford University Medical Center.

Galli and his colleagues conducted a series of experiments using normal mice, mice whose mast cells were unable to produce interleukin-10, and mice lacking mast cells.

Rather than simply looking at skin reactions that appeared immediately after contact with urushiol, Galli's colleague Michele A. Grimbaldeston decided to gauge the animals' responses to urushiol several days later. By the third day, the mice lacking mast cells and those whose mast cells didn't make interleukin-10 showed worse swelling and skin injury than did the normal mice. …

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