An unexpected role for neutrophils

Immune cells generally thought to fight off infections can also help dispose of dead cells, potentially protecting the body from autoimmune disorders.

3D image of neutrophils (red) burrowing into and engulfing the contents (green) of a dead liver cell (boundary shown in pink) with the nuclei shown in blue. Image credit: Xu et al. 2023 (CC BY 4.0).

Every day, the immune cells clears the remains of billions of old and damaged cells that have undergone a controlled form of death. Removing them quickly helps to prevent inflammation or the development of autoimmune diseases.

While immune cells called neutrophils are generally tasked with removing invading bacteria, macrophages are thought to be responsible for clearing dead cells. However, in healthy tissue, the process occurs so efficiently that it can be difficult to confirm which cells are responsible.

To take a closer look, Cao et al. focused on the liver by staining human samples to identify both immune and dead cells. Unexpectedly, there were large numbers of neutrophils visible inside dead liver cells. Further experiments in mice revealed that after entering the dead cells, neutrophils engulfed the contents and digested the dead cell from the inside out. This was a surprising finding because not only are neutrophils not usually associated with dead cells, but immune cells usually engulf cells and bacteria from the outside rather than burrowing inside them.

The importance of this neutrophil behaviour was shown when Cao et al. studied samples from patients with an autoimmune disease where immune cells attack the liver. In this case, very few dead liver cells contained neutrophils, and the neutrophils themselves did not seem capable of removing the dead cells, leading to inflammation. This suggests that defective neutrophil function could be a key contributor to this autoimmune disease.

The findings identify a new role for neutrophils in maintaining healthy functioning of the liver and reveal a new target in the treatment of autoimmune diseases. In the future, Cao et al. plan to explore whether compounds that enhance clearance of dead cells by neutrophils can be used to treat autoimmune liver disease in mouse models of the disease.