Special cells can “taste,” then help fight parasites in the gut

2 min read

What spurs the human immune system into action when there’s a parasitic infection in the gut? A new study finds that special cells called tuft cells play a big role—by “tasting” the presence of intestinal parasites and setting the immune system into motion against them.

The finding, outlined in a paper published February 2, 2016 in Science, is important, said senior author Wendy Garrett, Melvin J. and Geraldine L. Glimcher Associate Professor of Immunology and Infectious Diseases at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Knowing more about the interplay between tuft cells and the immune system could help scientists develop new ways to treat parasitic diseases such as giardiasis, roundworm, and hookworm, which afflict millions around the world— particularly children—and cause debilitating symptoms such as diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, bloating, and pain, and contribute to weight loss and malnutrition.

Scientists have known about tuft cells, which have stiff bristles and stick out from the intestinal wall in clumps, since the mid-1950s. But until recently their function has been unclear.

Garrett’s study was one of three recent studies to shed new light on tuft cells. “It’s pretty cool that three groups uncovered different information about these cells at the same time, just by chance,” she said. “We all found that tuft cells play an important role in the immune system.”