Researchers discover novel approach to stimulate immune cells

May 11, 2012
Dipak Sarkar, professor in the Department of Animal Sciences at the Rutgers School of Environmental and Biological Sciences and his research team have been able to take a new pharmacological approach to activate the immune cells to prevent cancer growth through stimulation of the opiate receptors found on immune cells. Credit: Rutgers University

Researchers at Rutgers University have uncovered a new way to stimulate activity of immune cell opiate receptors, leading to efficient tumor cell clearance.

Dipak Sarkar, professor in the Department of at the Rutgers School of Environmental and and his research team have been able to take a new pharmacological approach to activate the to prevent through stimulation of the found on immune cells.

This work, featured on the cover of the May 11 issue of the , describes two structurally different but functionally similar , Mu- and Delta-opioid receptors. These receptors form protein complexes as either two structurally similar receptors as a homodimer—formed by two identical molecules—or two structurally dissimilar protein complexes as a heterodimer—formed by ethanol inducement—in immune cells. The team pharmacologically fooled these two structurally different but functionally similar opioid receptors to form more homodimers so that opioid peptide increases the immune cells' ability to kill .

"The potential for this research can lead to production of endogenous opioids in the brain and the periphery becoming more effective in regulating stress and immune function," says Sarkar.

Opioids, like endorphins, communicate with the immune system, so when there is a deficit of endorphin – due to fetal alcohol exposure, alcoholism and drug abuse, anxiety, depression and chronic psychological stress – the body undergoes stress shocks and, as Sarkar suggests, causes "immune incompetence."

"Opioids act as the regulator of body stress mechanism, so when endorphins are low, body stress indicators are high," says Sarkar, who directs the Endocrine Research Program at Rutgers and is a faculty member of the Rutgers Center of Alcohol Studies.

"What's new about this latest research is that when we combine the Mu receptor blocker (antagonist) with the Delta receptor stimulator (agonist), the immune cells accrue increased foreign cell-killing ability," explains Sarkar. "This makes the body highly effective in fighting against bacterial infection and tumor growth."

Sarkar believes that combining this opioid antagonist and agonist may have potential therapeutic value in humans for the treatment of immune incompetence, cancer, pain and ethanol-dependent diseases.

Previous research by the Sarkar group showed that replenishing endorphins by cell therapy did prevent many of the stress and immune problems in fetal alcohol-exposed test subjects. However, cell therapy is highly complex, involving the cumbersome process of producing endorphin cells from neural stem cells of patients and can sometimes result in rejection and other issues.

The beginning of the team's interest into how stress causes diseases started with the observation that mothers who suffer from alcohol abuse or with other developmental problems often give birth to children who exhibited hype-stress responses, linked to childhood disease, child abnormality, immune diseases and cancer.

As part of their investigation, the Sarkar research team learned that the endogenous opioid system in the brain is abnormal in kids and adults who demonstrate hyper-stress responses.

"With the link between hyper-stress responses and manifested immune issues, the goal has been to replenish the opioid deficit in the brain and lead to an effective therapy for immune and other diseases," explained Sarkar.

The team also found that when people consume alcohol, the effectiveness of the body's ability to defend against viral and bacterial invasion, and fight against cancer decreases.

"The overall goal of our research program is to increase our understanding of and develop new therapy for the treatment of cancer, immune and other alcoholism-induced diseases," says Sarkar.

They hope that the promise of their novel pharmacological approach that modifies the activity of the opioid receptors of immune cells brings them one step closer in the long road to therapeutic advances.

Explore further: Video: How did life on Earth begin?

Related Stories

Alcohol, pregnancy and brain cell death

Aug 27, 2009

Rutgers University Professor Dipak Sarkar has received a $3.5 million MERIT Award from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to continue researching the damaging effects of alcohol on the nervous systems ...

Alcohol-related behavior changes -- blame your immune system

Sep 29, 2011

When you think about your immune system, you probably think about it fighting off a cold. But new research from the University of Adelaide suggests that immune cells in your brain may contribute to how you respond to alcohol.

Universal donor immune cells

Jul 25, 2011

One of the latest attempts to boost the body's defenses against cancer is called adoptive cell transfer, in which patients receive a therapeutic injection of their own immune cells. This therapy, currently tested in early ...

Stress may make you itch

Oct 27, 2008

Current research suggests that stress may activate immune cells in your skin, resulting in inflammatory skin disease. The related report by Joachim et al., "Stress-induced Neurogenic Inflammation in Murine Skin Skews Dendritic ...

Novel mechanism regulating stress identified

Dec 13, 2011

Neuroscience researchers from Tufts have demonstrated, for the first time, that the physiological response to stress depends on neurosteroids acting on specific receptors in the brain, and they have been able to block that ...

Recommended for you

Chemical biologists find new halogenation enzyme

Sep 15, 2014

Molecules containing carbon-halogen bonds are produced naturally across all kingdoms of life and constitute a large family of natural products with a broad range of biological activities. The presence of halogen substituents ...

Protein secrets of Ebola virus

Sep 15, 2014

The current Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa, which has claimed more than 2000 lives, has highlighted the need for a deeper understanding of the molecular biology of the virus that could be critical in ...

Protein courtship revealed through chemist's lens

Sep 15, 2014

Staying clear of diseases requires that the proteins in our cells cooperate with one another. But, it has been a well-guarded secret how tens of thousands of different proteins find the correct dancing partners ...

Decoding 'sweet codes' that determine protein fates

Sep 15, 2014

We often experience difficulties in identifying the accurate shape of dynamic and fluctuating objects. This is especially the case in the nanoscale world of biomolecules. The research group lead by Professor Koichi Kato of ...

User comments : 2

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

kaasinees
1 / 5 (1) May 11, 2012
I take it that this method will not cause the immune system to attack healthy cells?
_ilbud
not rated yet May 11, 2012
Does that mean that smack heads don't get cancer?