A well-choreographed dance | WORLD
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A well-choreographed dance

Scientists discover the immune systems of newborn babies are almost identical


A well-choreographed dance

Researchers in Sweden were stunned recently to discover that even though newborn babies come in contact with vastly different microbes in their first few weeks of life, their immune systems follow a preset pattern of development, nearly identical from one baby to the next.

Immediately after birth a baby’s immune system begins to react to the environment around it, triggered by bacteria, viruses, fungi, and other microbes. The immune development begins as cell and protein changes start to take place primarily in the lungs, gut, skin, and mucous membranes, the body’s main points of contact with the outside world.

Previously, researchers could only obtain information about a newborn’s immune system from umbilical cord blood samples. But those samples offered no information about immune system changes following birth. Now, a new technique of immune cell analysis allowed the researchers to monitor the changes in a baby’s immune system during the baby’s first few weeks of life. In the study, published last month in the journal Cell, the researchers compared blood samples from 100 babies during the first, fourth, and 12th week after birth.

The researchers surmised that the immune cells in cord blood samples would show a high degree of similarity among the babies. But, because different babies would come in contact with a wide array of different microbes in the first few weeks of life, the scientists expected to find that later blood samples would show increasing diversity.

Much to the scientist’s surprise, they found quite the opposite. The cord blood samples of the babies showed much diversity, but within the first few weeks of life, the baby’s immune system cells and proteins became nearly identical. “It seems as if all babies follow one and the same pattern, with their immune systems responding with exactly the same sequence of dramatic changes. It’s almost like a well-choreographed dance, a practiced routine,” Petter Brodin, one of the researchers, said in a statement. But the researchers made no mention that well-choreographed dances are the creation of a skilled choreographer.

The discovery may allow researchers to find ways to prevent autoimmune diseases such as diabetes, allergies, asthma, and inflammatory bowel disease and to develop better vaccines tailored to newborn immune systems.


Even plants can send out an alarm

Plants certainly lack the sophisticated communication and defense mechanisms with which God endowed animals, but a new research study, published in the journal Science, shows that even vegetation such as the lowly mustard plant can signal danger and trigger defense responses.

Researchers already knew that plants employ some sort of alarm system that spreads through the plant when injury occurs, but they did not know what made it work. The scientists suspected that calcium, a mineral present in all cells that often acts to signal a changing environment, might play a role. They developed plants in the lab that produce a protein that causes calcium to fluoresce. When the researchers observed streaks of fluorescent light zooming across an injured plant, they discovered that wounding activates a wave of calcium that moves through the rest of the plant and triggers a defense response.

The researchers captured on video a wave of calcium shooting to distant leaves as a caterpillar ate through the base of a leaf and severed it from the plant. The signal moved at about 1 millimeter per second, only a fraction of the speed of animal nerve impulses, but fast enough to activate defense-related hormones in distant leaves to help ward off predators by increasing levels of noxious chemicals. —J.B.


Stopping cancer’s runaway growth

Within our bodies, God placed stipulations on how many times a healthy cell can divide, a means of controlling cell growth. But stem cells, which replenish dying cells, can continue to divide as long as we live, thanks to the enzyme telomerase. The process provides a wonderful balance of keeping cell growth in check and yet allowing for some cells, such as those in the skin and blood, to regenerate.

But many cancer cells can also activate telomerase and then divide unchecked. Scientists estimate that up to 90 percent of all human cancers grow in this way. Researchers have developed drugs that can block telomerase, but in most cases they prove too toxic for patients because they interfere with the enzyme’s ability to maintain healthy cells.

In a new study, scientists discovered that a specific gene mutation allows cancer cells to activate telomerase and grow indefinitely. But the gene mutation depends on a protein component called GABP-β1L. Because most cells can function just fine without GABP-β1L, the researchers used the gene editing tool CRISP-R to eliminate the protein component in glioblastoma cancer cells, the same type of brain cancer that claimed the life of Sen. John McCain recently. Eliminating the component significantly slowed the growth of the cancer cells both in lab dishes as well as when the researchers transplanted them in mice, but its removal appeared to produce no ill effect on healthy cells.

The next step for researchers will be to develop drugs that can work similarly to the gene editing technique, Joseph Costello, the study’s lead researcher, said in a statement. —J.B.

Regenerating teeth from stem cells

Nearly half of all children injure a tooth at some point during childhood. When the injury affects a permanent tooth, it can hinder blood supply and root development, causing the tooth to die.

Now researchers have extracted stem cells from the baby teeth of children who had injured a permanent incisor. In the study, published in the journal Science Translational Medicine, the researchers allowed the stem cells to grow in a lab dish and then implanted those cells into the injured tooth. On follow-up, the injured teeth showed increased blood flow, root development, and increased thickness of dentin, the hard part of a tooth beneath the enamel. When the researchers later examined the tissue of a treated tooth after the child reinjured it, they found the implanted stem cells had regenerated blood vessels, connective tissue, and dentin-producing cells. Three years after the experiment the researchers still found no evidence of any negative side effects. —J.B.

Julie Borg

Julie is a WORLD contributor who covers science and intelligent design. A clinical psychologist and a World Journalism Institute graduate, Julie resides in Dayton, Ohio.

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