The NK-22 cells are part of the innate immune system, which reacts quickly to invading pathogens. The researchers found that in response to immune signals warning of foreign invaders, the cells produce copious quantities of a compound called IL-22, which is why the researchers chose to name them NK-22 cells.
"NK-22 cells are already present in the mucosal tissue of the gastrointestinal tract, and as soon as they see a pathogen, they react," Cella said. "That is a great advantage to the body because it produces a protective response in the very first hours of pathogenic attack."
Now that immunologists know NK-22 cells exist and what immune factors influence them, they may be able to capitalize on them to treat a variety of inflammatory diseases, the researchers said.
"Diseases such as inflammatory bowel disease result from a defect in the intestine's protective barrier," says senior author Marco Colonna, MD, professor of pathology and immunology. "If we can develop methods to culture NK-22 cells, we may be able to use them to promote healing and protect the gastrointestinal tract."