GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The soldiers of our immune system were long thought to be fueled only by the foods we eat. However, researchers at Van Andel Institute believe the findings from their new study reveal T cells have a much wider appetite than originally thought.

“Every process in the body is powered by metabolism, which in turn is fueled by the nutrients we consume through our diet,” Russell Jones, Ph.D., chair of Van Andel Institute’s Department of Metabolism and Nutritional Programming said. “We found that immune cells are much more flexible in selecting the nutrient fuels they consume and, importantly, that they prefer some nutrients that were previously dismissed as waste. This understanding is crucial for optimizing T cell responses and developing new strategies for boosting our ability to fight off disease.” 

Jones, who is the co-author of the study published this week in Cell Metabolism, says the findings could create a path for personalized dietary recommendations that would “supercharge” immune cells and provide more effective therapies for cancer and other diseases.

Joneses research took a new approach to studyin T cells. In previous studies, the cells were grown in lab dishes with “nutrient-contatining media”. But Jones believed those nutrients were similar to a diet of eggs and toast. This time, Jones and his colleagues developed a more diverse sample of nutrients for the research and the outcome was much different.

“We found that, when we offer them a full buffet, these cells actually prefer a wider array of ‘fuels’ than previously believed,” Jones said. “This has major implications for how we tailor dietary recommendations as ways to promote health and combat disease.”

Jones explains the research through what they discovered from lactate, a cellular waste that causes muscle aches and pains and a byproduct of cancer cells that allows the disease to attack other tissue and avoid the immune system. When the T cells were given the choice between glucose and lactate, they chose the lactate to power their energy production which enhanced their overall function.

According to VAI, there is research that suggests too much lactate is bad for T cells, but Jones’ work provides the idea that small amounts may increase their overall function.

Jones and his team plan to take their findings and use them to take a closer look at the unique connection between metabolism and the immune system to learn more about how they work together.

Hear from Dr. Jones below.

Video provided by Van Andel Institute