Immune cells for life

White blood cells that are present during the formation of the immune system remain in large numbers throughout life.

Healthy human T cell. NIAID (CC BY 2.0)

The human immune system develops a memory of pathogens that it encounters over its lifetime, allowing it to respond quickly to future infections. It does this partly through T cells, white blood cells that can recognize different pathogens. During an infection, the T cells that recognize the specific pathogen attacking the body will divide until a large number of clones of these T cells is available to help in the fight. After the infection clears, the immune system ‘keeps’ some of these cells so it can recognize the pathogen in the future, and respond quicker to an infection.

Over the course of their lives, people will be infected by many different pathogens, leading to a wide variety of T cells that each respond to one of these pathogens. However, it is not well understood how various infections throughout the human lifespan shape the overall population of different T cells.

Gaimann et al. used mathematical modelling to study how the composition of the immune system changes in people of different ages. Different populations of T cells – each specialized against a specific antigen – had been previously identified through genetic sequencing. Gaimann et al. analyzed their dynamics to show that many of the largest populations originate around birth, during the formation of the immune system.

These findings suggest a potential mechanism for how exposure to pathogens in infancy can influence the immune system much later in life. The results may also explain variations in how people respond to infections and in their risk of developing autoimmune conditions. This understanding could help develop new treatments or interventions to guide the immune system as it develops.