A group of scientists from the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology claims to have discovered a way to reverse the natural aging of immune system cells, potentially making the elderly far more resistant to COVID-19 and other infections. While clinical trials are still needed, the team’s work points to a future in which the elderly can fight pathogens just as well as younger generations, enjoying better health well into old age.
According to The Jerusalem Post, the researchers identified the molecular pathway that the human body uses to create B cells, which the immune system uses to identify and produce antibodies against new pathogens. According to research published last month in the journal Blood, your body typically stops producing as many B cells as you get older, but suppressing a specific hormone can trigger production, theoretically giving an older person’s immune system the same robustness it had earlier in life.
B cells typically live for a short period of time before dying and being converted into long-lasting memory B cells (MBC), which your immune system uses as a kind of record of previous infections. If a B cell dies before becoming an MBC, it is replaced by a completely new one. According to the study, when there are more MBCs taking up space, cell production slows down, making it more difficult for an older person’s immune system to learn how to fight off new pathogens like the coronavirus.
We have discovered a way to reverse the natural aging of immune system cells, potentially making the elderly far more resistant to COVID-19 and other infections. We discovered specific hormonal signals produced by old B cells, memory cells, that inhibit bone marrow from producing new B cells.Doron Melamed
“Young cells have a very diverse ability to recognize anything [pathogenic] that comes into your body,” Technion-Israel researcher Doron Melamed told The Jerusalem Post.
The researchers investigated one of the ways the body naturally replenishes its supply in order to find a way to trick the body into making new B cells. Patients undergoing multiple sclerosis treatment had their MBC stock depleted, at which point their bodies began rapidly producing new B cells.
The researchers identified the specific hormones that shut down B cell production once stores were replenished, and discovered that deactivating the hormone causes the body to produce extra B cells left and right. They hope to turn that hormonal trick into a new rejuvenating treatment for the elderly and immunocompromised in the future.
“We discovered specific hormonal signals produced by old B cells, memory cells, that inhibit bone marrow from producing new B cells,” Melamed explained. “This is a significant discovery.” It’s like looking for a needle in a haystack.” It also implies that specific drugs or treatments can be developed over time to inhibit one of the hormones in the signaling pathway and induce bone marrow to produce new B cells.
Melamed’s lab collaborated with the departments of hematology and rheumatology at Sourasky Medical Center in Tel Aviv and Rambam Health Care Campus in Haifa to validate their theory. Patients with certain medical conditions, such as lupus, lymphoma, and multiple sclerosis, are subjected to B cell depletion, which means that a significant number of memory B cells are removed from their bodies.
The group discovered that older patients who underwent this procedure had their immune systems rejuvenated and their bodies could produce new B cells again. Inhibiting one of the hormones in the signaling pathway that suppresses the production of new B cells can produce an effect similar to B cell depletion.
“We now know that there is some kind of conversation going on between compartments in the body, between how B cells are produced and what controls that,” Melamed said. In the meantime, he suggested that doctors use this knowledge to better protect the elderly, such as by instituting a vaccination program aimed solely at adults that preempts variants with an additional shot.
“Even every three or four months, vaccinate them repeatedly to ensure they maintain high antibodies,” Melamed advised. He also proposed combining vaccines, such as combining a shot of a Pfizer mRNA vaccine with a booster shot from AstraZeneca given several months later, “which may generate better stimulation of the elderly immune system.”
Simultaneously, clinical trials would be required to determine how to safely inhibit the hormones in order to find a longer-term solution, hopefully before the next pandemic, according to Melamed. “We discovered specific hormonal signals produced by old B cells, memory cells, that inhibit bone marrow from producing new B cells,” Melamed explained to The Jerusalem Post. “This is a significant discovery.” It’s like looking for a needle in a haystack.”