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Science  13 Nov 2009:
Vol. 326, Issue 5955, pp. 929-931
DOI: 10.1126/science.326.5955.929

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To keep watch for internal intruders, a cell deploys a cytoplasmic surveillance system that parallels the one detecting menaces outside of its membrane. When infiltrating pathogens trip one of these alarms, the cell retaliates with measures that range from instigating inflammation to committing suicide in a way that alerts other cells to the threat. In turn, microbes have evolved a plethora of countermeasures to disrupt, deceive, and dodge these intracellular weapons. The medical importance of our cells' internal defenses goes beyond battling pathogens. Errant responses by these alarm systems underlie illnesses such as gout, Crohn's disease, which is a type of intestinal inflammation, and the lung deterioration provoked by asbestos. Some of what scientists have learned about the mechanisms of such diseases has already made it to the clinic: The discovery that faulty microbial receptors inside the cell are behind several rare but debilitating "fever syndromes" inspired a successful new treatment for those conditions. Researchers have been testing the same drug against gout. Furthermore, scientists have just realized that a chemical long used to boost the effectiveness of vaccines might work by activating one of the cell's internal tripwires. This insight could lead to the production of better, safer ingredients for future immunizations.