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National MS Society
Information Sourcebook
T Cells
Immune function is helped by two kinds of white blood cells. The “B cells” (so-called
because they develop in bone marrow) produce antibodies. The “T cells” (so-called
because they develop in a small organ called the thymus gland) are responsible for
a variety of other immune responses. These responses include: 1) direct attacks on
foreign substances such as bacteria, viruses, or foreign tissues; 2) augmenting the
B-cell response; and 3) producing substances called cytokines that direct responses
and activities in other immune cells.
Three Broad Categories of T cells
There are three broad categories of T cells.
• Helper T cells augment the immune response by recognizing the presence of
a foreign antigen and then stimulating antibody production and producing
cytokines that “turn on” or activate other T cells.
• Suppressor T cells function in an opposite manner. They dampen or turn off
the immune response.
• Cytotoxic or “killer” T cells directly attack and destroy antigenic material.
Individual T cells are able to recognize only certain antigens. Their ability to
discriminate between antigens is conferred by protein molecules on the cell surface
called receptors. The receptor and the antigen fit together like a lock and a key only
when their shapes match perfectly. The number and specificity of T-cell receptors
appears to be determined by the cell’s genes.
It is now generally accepted that the demyelination seen in MS is caused by an
abnormal autoimmune process—that is, by activation of T cells against some
component of central nervous system myelin (the fatty sheath that surrounds and
insulates nerve fibers). Demyelination—the destruction of myelin—causes nerve
impulses to be slowed or halted and produces the symptoms of MS.
Much More Now Known about Roles of T Cells
Over the last 15 years, much knowledge has been gained about the specific roles of
T cells. Among the activities that have been observed are:
• Decreased suppressor T-cell function in the peripheral blood of MS patients
during an acute exacerbation (also known as an attack, relapse, or flare);
• Increased numbers of helper T cells in the spinal fluid;
• Increased numbers of activated T cells passing into the brain from peripheral
blood (which then attract other immune cells into the brain);
• Presence of T cells in MS plaques; and
• Increased frequency of activated T cells against the myelin seen in MS
patients compared to healthy controls.
Therapies Directed Against Specific T cells or T-cell Receptors
The abnormal autoimmune process that is responsible for the central nervous
system demyelination in MS appears to involve selective activation of helper T cells
and killer T cells, with a corresponding decrease in suppressor T-cells. These
findings suggest the rationale for therapies that target only specific T cells or T-cell
receptors that are sensitized to myelin. Some of these approaches, such as the use
of monoclonal antibodies directed against certain T cells, have proven successful in
treating animals with experimental allergic encephalomyelitis (EAE), an animal
model of MS. Pilot clinical trials are in progress. Future experimental therapies may
involve antibodies directed against the cytokines that turn on the T cells or therapy
designed to desensitize or inhibit T-cell activity.
While much more information is needed before the exact nature of the autoimmune
response in MS is explained, it appears that T cells and their cytokines are the keys
to this process. Ongoing research in these areas may provide new, specific
immunotherapies that will stop the progression of MS, without harming any immune
cells that are not involved in the process of myelin destruction.
See also…
Autoimmune Disease
Clinical Trials
Experimental Allergic Encephalomyelitis (EAE)
Monoclonal Antibodies
Kalb R. (ed.) Multiple Sclerosis: The Questions You Have; The Answers You Need
(3rd ed.). New York: Demos Medical Publishing, 2004.
—Ch. 2 Neurology
The National Multiple Sclerosis Society is proud to be a source of information about multiple
sclerosis. Our comments are based on professional advice, published experience, and expert
opinion, but do not represent individual therapeutic recommendations or prescription. For specific
information and advice, consult your personal physician.
To contact your chapter, call 1-800-FIGHT-MS (1-800-344-4867) or visit the National MS Society
web site:
© 2005 The National Multiple Sclerosis Society. All rights reserved.
Last updated October 2005