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Cannibal Blood Cells

January 8, 2007

Cannibalism is a big no-no for people. But it’s a yes-yes for some blood cells.


Why cannibalism is in everyone’s blood. I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

Killer T cells aren’t called "killer" for nothing. They’re a kind of white blood cell that rips apart other white blood cells that have been infected by viruses. Now, immunologist Mark Slifka and his colleagues at Oregon Health and Science University have shown that the T cells take it a step further, and cannibalize their infected cousins. They proved it by coating a sample of infected cells with a green dye.

MARK SLIFKA (Oregon Health and Science University):
And when we threw the killer T cells in there and they recognized these infected counterparts, not only did they kill those cells, but they then started to turn green. And this is how we realized that they were eating the surfaces off these infected cells.

Slifka says scientists could use a similar technique to test the efficacy of new vaccines – or perhaps even to improve them, by learning why some infected cells seem to be more appetizing than others. I’m Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.