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Discovery reveals hidden power of immune cells

Huge leap for blindness, spinal cord injuries and heart failure.

In a world-first, scientists at the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute have discovered that a special type of immune cell is critical for healing damage to the heart, spinal cord and retinal tissues.

Although well known to help fight the common cold, until now, the full power of these unique immune cells has remained hidden. For the first time, researchers at the Victor Chang Institute have shown that these cells, known as regulatory T cells, also play a key role in repairing and regenerating injured tissues and organs.

Using a zebrafish model, scientists discovered that when an injury occurs, large numbers of these unique immune cells migrate to the wound and begin to repair the damage. This is an entirely new function of regulatory T cells that has previously eluded scientists globally.

The breakthrough, published in the prestigious journal Developmental Cell, is the product of four years of meticulous research. 

Lead investigator, Dr Kazu Kikuchi believes this discovery demonstrates the importance of the immune system in controlling regenerative responses.

“We’ve uncovered an entirely new role of these special immune cells that will allow us to further explore the potential of self-healing in humans. If we can replicate a zebrafish’s ability to heal its own heart, retina and spinal column, then it could enable humans to fight heart disease, restore sight and reverse spinal cord damage. The implications are huge,” Dr Kikuchi explained.   

The findings have also identified that these regulatory T cells can adapt to different environments, target the damaged site and, importantly, completely regenerate the tissue without any scarring.

“These immune cells are extremely clever! We’ve shown that they not only adapt to the damaged site, but they also completely change their genetic program to suit the damaged tissue. So if the heart needs repairing, they’ll adapt to the heart, or if the spinal cord needs healing they’ll change function to suit the spine. It’s quite fascinating,” Dr Kikuchi added. 

Professor Bob Graham, Executive Director of the Victor Chang Institute, believes this breakthrough could lead to a new era of investigation into organ regeneration in humans.

“This opens the door to potentially training these cells to orchestrate the healing of injured organs and tissues. That is the exciting part for the future! The next step is to investigate exactly how these regulatory T cells know when to migrate and adapt to the injury,” explains Professor Graham. 

In July, Dr Kikuchi is being awarded an inaugural Award for Excellence in The Netherlands, for his discoveries in the field of organ regeneration.

A copy of the paper published in Developmental Cell is available upon request. 

About the zebrafish aquarium at the Victor Chang Institute

  •   The Victor Chang Institute aquarium is home to over 40,000 zebrafish
  •  Zebrafish are 70% genetically similar to humans
  •  A zebrafish lays 300 transparent eggs per week, making it easy to watch them grow 
  • Zebrafish can heal their own hearts, spinal cords, retinas and fins, much like a lizard can grow back its tail. 

MEDIA CONTACT: media@victorchang.edu.au

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