Magazine article Science News

Giving Mast Cells Their Proper Respect

Magazine article Science News

Giving Mast Cells Their Proper Respect

Article excerpt

Although identified more than 150 years ago, mast cells still don't get much respect. And what little reputation these immune cells have is bad.

Through the release of chemicals such as histamine in response to pollen and other harmless substances, for example, mast cells trigger the miseries of allergies. The cells can overreact so strongly, as in cases of bee stings or peanut allergies, that they kill a person.

Yet, scientists trust that the immune system has a reason for keeping the cells around. "Mast cells are in the body to do good. Their role in allergies is an accident," says Soman N. Abraham of Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C.

To prove that point, Abraham and his colleagues have investigated how mast cells may help the body defend against bacteria. In their latest work, they've found that the cells sport a surface protein that recognizes potentially dangerous germs.

Mast cells abound below the skin and in the linings of the respiratory and urinary tracts, areas vulnerable to infectious organisms. There, the cells can secrete chemicals, such as tumor necrosis factor-alpha, that draw microbe-killing blood cells called neutrophils.

"They seem ideally placed and equipped to play a critical role in immune surveillance," says Abraham. "We view them as sentries with rifles. They're at the perimeter keeping an eye out. When they see an enemy, they send signals to bring in reinforcements and at the same time attack the enemy with the rifles. …

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