Too much iron can strongly harm the immune system

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Iron is a mineral that we all know is important for our health. But recent research has shown just how vital it is for our immune system to function properly.

It helps keep the immune system in balance, ready to fight off infections but not overly active when it’s not necessary.

In our bodies, a type of immune cell called T cells are always on the lookout for invaders like viruses. These T cells are in a state of readiness, waiting quietly until they need to act.

This state is known as quiescence, and it’s essential for the T cells to function properly when they encounter a threat.

A recent study led by Cheong-Hee Chang, a professor of microbiology and immunology at the University of Michigan Medical School, along with researcher Ajay Kumar, has provided new insights into how iron affects these T cells.

This study builds on earlier findings that showed a lack of iron, such as in anemia, prevents T cells from growing and multiplying, which is crucial for fighting infections.

However, the new research, published in the journal PNAS, reveals that having too much iron can be just as harmful.

Excessive iron in the body, often due to a diet too rich in this nutrient or the body’s inability to process iron properly, can lead to inflammation and is associated with other health issues like cancer and aging.

In their experiments, the researchers worked with mice that were genetically modified to lack a specific gene in their T cells, leading to an accumulation of iron. This setup allowed them to closely observe how too much iron affected the cells.

For the first time, they noticed that an overload of iron caused the T cells to become dysfunctional. The mitochondria, the powerhouses within the cells, started working overtime.

This abnormal activity caused the T cells to begin multiplying uncontrollably without the usual signals that tell them to do so.

Moreover, the excess iron led to the early death of these T cells through a process called ferroptosis, where the cells die due to an overload of iron.

Ajay Kumar highlighted the problem with this, pointing out, “In any disease condition, it’s crucial that T cells do not die before they have a chance to perform their role.”

The findings of this study could have significant implications for treating conditions related to iron overload. By understanding how iron affects T cell function, scientists might be able to develop better strategies for managing diseases where iron plays a role.

The research team, which includes Chenxian Ye, Afia Nkansah, Thomas Decoville, Garrett M. Fogo, Peter Sajjakulnukit, Mack B. Reynolds, Li Zhang, Osbourne Quaye, Young-Ah Seo, Thomas H. Sanderson, and Costas A. Lyssiotis, hopes that these insights will pave the way for new therapies that could help maintain the delicate balance of iron in the body to ensure a properly functioning immune system.

This balance is crucial not only for fighting infections but also for preventing the immune system from becoming overly active and causing other health issues.

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The research findings can be found in PNAS.

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