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PET imaging reveals the immune system at work

For clinicians, the ability to look routinely inside the body and see -- at the level of the cell -- how it confronts disease is a distant dream. But in a series of experiments with genetically engineered mice, a team of researchers from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) at the University of California Los Angeles has taken a key step toward realizing that vision by demonstrating the ability to peer inside the body non-invasively and see the immune system at work.

The new research is important because it may one day aid physicians in the diagnosis and treatment of important conditions such as cancer and other diseases.

Writing in the November 15, 2005, issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), a team of researchers led by HHMI investigator Owen N. Witte at UCLA's Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center reports the results of experiments that enabled the group to tune in to the cellular battles waged by the immune system deep in the body. Using positron emission tomography or PET, Witte and his colleagues were able to observe key cells of the immune system as they responded to tumors in mice.

"We know we can use PET to visualize cancer," said Witte. "Now we can use it to visualize the immune response to cancer" and other conditions.This ability, he said, promises an unprecedented look at how the immune system attacks -- or sometimes promotes -- disease at the molecular level. It may help scientists and clinicians better evaluate specific immune responses to disease, making diagnosis and treatment more precise and effective.

When confronted with disease, the immune system deploys a complex network of specialized cells to defend the body. A malfunctioning immune system can cause such things as allergies, arthritis, cancer and AIDS as the body turns on itself.

Current technology to assess immune response relies on invasive procedures such as biopsies to gather tissue that can be analyzed to determine how
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Source:Howard Hughes Medical Institute


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