News FocusBiomedical Research

Immunology Uncaged

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Science  26 Mar 2010:
Vol. 327, Issue 5973, pp. 1573
DOI: 10.1126/science.327.5973.1573

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With a routine blood test, your doctor can ascertain how well your metabolism handles lipids and whether you are vulnerable to heart disease. But don't expect to get a test that reveals whether your immune system is working normally or whether you are at risk for, say, autoimmune diseases. The reason: Researchers still can't define what's normal for the immune system. Cardiologists can specify healthy levels of LDL, HDL, and triglycerides, but immunologists can't do the same for cytokines, key chemical messengers that trigger immune cells to mature, divide, attack, or perform other actions. Researchers' reliance on mice deserves some of the blame for this ignorance, immunologists say. The human and mouse lineages diverged some 65 million years ago, and the rodent's immune system has adapted to safeguard a small, short-lived animal that scurries around with its nose in the dirt. However, nobody has cataloged the differences, and as a result, inconsistencies between human and mouse immunity often leave patients in the lurch.