Manipulating the Immune System1

Dr. Karen Newell, Biology, and Dr. Bob Camley, Physics

If you listen carefully you might hear it. In the microscopic world of cells, there's a constant chatter. Cells communicate, and the subjects of these conversations are profound - life, death, and disease. Cellular metabolism governs these interactions between cells, and the study of cellular metabolism is called bioenergetics. "What's new to bioenergetics," says Karen Newell, associate professor at CU-Colorado Springs and director of the CU Institute of Bioenergetics, "Is this link between cells and tissues, and communication." As communication between cells and tissues is better understood, it could be manipulated in order to treat diseases such as cancer, multiple sclerosis, and diabetes.

The Bioenergetics Institute, which was spearheaded by Newell and colleague Camley and ceremonially launched on January 31, 2003, will conduct research to determine the effects of bioenergetics on the immune system. "The science of immunology is the study of how we protect ourselves from harm," says Newell, who began exploring this research during a stint at the University of Vermont. She was looking at the development of drug resistance, and asked the question, "If you grow cells in drugs do they change how they look to the immune system?" "To my shock and horror," says Newell, "they did." What this implied was that drugs do not kill cells directly, but rather change the way they look to encourage the immune system to kill them. "Our research is important," Newell says, "Because rather than loading people up with drugs to treat their diseases, we could manipulate the immune system to attack unhealthy cells." In the same vein, autoimmune diseases, in which the body's immune system attacks itself, could be corrected by manipulating the body to correctly recognize unhealthy cells and cease destroying them. The institute's research could lead to exploration of ways to tell cells what to do or what not to become, offering limitless potential for disease treatment. Most of this research has been funded by the National Institutes of Health.