LINK BETWEEN CELL METABOLISM AND IMMUNE SYSTEM

George Carnes, 719-262-3648

COLORADO SPRINGS, COLO — New treatments for cancer and other diseases may come from a better understanding of how cellular metabolism affects the immune system.

Researchers at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs have found the way that cells use fuel and consume, store and produce energy plays a significant role in immune system activation.

nderstanding this interaction may aid in the development of new compounds that will promote or interfere with the immune response by manipulating metabolism.

“Although our research needs to be rigorously tested, we believe that we have made the discovery that there is a direct link between the way cells use energy and how those cells or tissues appear to the immune system through intercellular communication,” said M. Karen Newell, associate professor of biology and scientific director of the Institute of Bioenergetics at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.

“We have observed that if we manipulate metabolic activity in a cancer cell, for instance, we can make it visible to the immune system and the cell can be, if appropriately sensitized, destroyed.”

Newell has observed that the reciprocal interaction also is true and that metabolic manipulations cause the immune system to overlook certain cells. This finding may have implications in treating a wide array of autoimmune and age-related disorders such as multiple sclerosis, diabetes, arthritis, heart and Alzheimer’s diseases and in preventing transplant rejection.

Newell’s initial observations came while studying drug resistance in cancer cells, the leading cause of death from the disease. She observed that chemo therapy appears to kill tumor cells by inducing signals that flag them for destruction by the immune system. Drug- resistant cells behave differently metabolically inhibiting the signals and making the cells invisible to the immune system.

“Our research indicates that chemo therapy may not kill cancer cells directly, but by crippling metabolic activity, they sensitize the cells to immune-mediated death,” said Newell.

Putting together energy and the immune response is a new approach in the study of immunology and represents a shift in prevailing scientific thought about how the immune system works.

In January, CU-Colorado Springs opened the new Institute of Bioenergetics to test Newell’s discovery across scientific disciplines. The institute will bring together researchers from multiple disciplines to experiment with the energy-immune response model in their area of study.

It is hoped with additional data, clinical applications based on the research will be developed in the near term.

“We have a sense of urgency,” said Newell. “If our findings are validated, they have profound implications for future therapies for many diseases.”

The institute will seek to form partnerships with local, state and federal funding agencies, faculty, commercial businesses, not-for-profit and other organizations to develop synergies to advance the research.

In addition to her research, Newell teaches graduate and undergraduate science courses at CU-Colorado Springs. She is also associate director of the Center for Computational Biology and an adjunct member of the Webb Waring Institute based at the CU Health Sciences Center. Previously, Newell was an assistant professor in the Department of Medicine at the University of Vermont and an assistant professor at the CU Health Sciences Center.

Newell’s initial findings regarding drug resistance were reported in Immunology and Cell Biology in January 1998.

CU-Colorado Springs, located on Austin Bluffs Parkway in northeast Colorado Springs, is the fastest growing university in Colorado and one of the fastest growing universities in the nation. The university offers 25 bachelor’s degrees, 17 master’s and two doctoral degrees. The campus enrolls more than 7,400 students annually.