November 12, 2021 – Age is a key risk factor for severe COVID-19, in part because the immune response weakens as we age. But our understanding of this effect of age remains unclear, as the immune system is one of the most complex systems in the human body.
In hopes of clearing some of the fog, the Yale Cancer Center has created a group dedicated to studying the impact of age on immune cells. Researchers at the new center received a $ 6.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to spend 5 years mapping aging cells in the immune system.
In cells, aging or “senescence” means that they have stopped dividing. Senescent cells play a role in promoting health, but can also contribute to disease. For example, senescence is a defense against cancer – cells that don’t divide will never divide uncontrollably – but a health hazard when the buildup of senescent cells triggers inflammation in surrounding tissue.
The researchers plan to study different types of senescent cells in the human immune system to learn how they influence their environment. Investigators will follow lymph node cells, where immune cells grow. If lymph node cells become senescent and circulate around the body, they can end up affecting many other organs in addition to lymphatic tissue.
The objective is to create a map of the places where senescent immune cells move and their effects. The new center is one of eight nationwide mapping centers that make up the Cellular Senescence Network, or SenNet, which aims to learn more about all types of senescent cells throughout the body.
Once scientists have a complete picture of senescent cells and how they behave, they hope they can distinguish healthy cells from those that cause disease. This information could guide the development of therapies that, while not curing a disease, could slow its progression or even aging itself.
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