The cops-and-robbers theme applies to many aspects of the immune response, I wrote in my release on a just-published Nature Medicine study by Stanford immunologist Jorg Goronzy, MD, PhD. A vaccine is, in essence, a “mug shot” of one or more of an infectious agent or tumor's most prominent features, analagous to a photo of a giant wart on a suspect’s nose.
These mug shots are nailed into carefully selected frames and displayed by "desk cop" cells of the immune system to patrolling "beat cop" cells, who eventually succeed in busting the trespassing pathogen or (much more often than you might think, although unfortunately not nearly often enough) nipping a tumor in the early juvenile-delinquency bud of its development.
But just waking up the desk cops won’t cut it if the beat cops are too sluggish. Any beat cop (or mail carrier, I can attest from ancient experience) will tell you that the best feet in the business eventually go flat. As a result, the older we get the more our immune systems tend to balk, leaving infectious diseases or cancer unchallenged and misfiling the suspect profiles supplied via vaccination.
A person’s immune response declines slowly but surely starting at around age 40, Goronzy told me:
While 90 percent of young adults respond to most vaccines, after age 60 that response rate is down to around 40-45 percent. With some vaccines, it’s as low as 20 percent.
Vaccine failure among seniors is a serious health problem. Nine out of 10 influenza deaths, for example, occur among people 65 years and older.
But Goronzy may have found just the arch support to get our beat-cop immune cells off their flat feet and out on the street. He and his teammates pinpointed a defect in precisely these cells that increases with age and looks to be largely responsible for their ability to activate. What's more, the Goronzy team identified a compound that reverses this decline (at least in test tubes). So, a drug that restores aging bodies' faltering resistance to cancer and infectious disease may be in our future - hopefully not too far in the future for those among us who stand to benefit the most.
I say: "Donuts all around!"