The National Institutes of Health has awarded a team of UF researchers $2.7 million to study whether it can use a rare immune cell in pigs to treat influenza.
John Driver, the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences assistant professor in the Department of Animal Sciences who received the grant, said the Natural Killer T (NKT) cells produce huge quantities of immune molecules to prompt specific immune responses.
With the right direction, the cells could be harnessed for anything from preventing infectious diseases and cancers to reversing autoimmune diseases like Type 1 diabetes, he said.
Pigs possess a version of the cells similar to those found in humans, Driver said. That similarity, paired with the prevalence of influenza in pigs, gives his team confidence their work will translate to human treatment.
“We think we have some real advantages for helping people in the long run,” Driver said. “If we can use (this strategy) safely in pigs for different infectious diseases … then we’ll have more confidence we can use this therapy for cancer and infectious diseases in human beings.”
Kelena Klippel, a 22-year-old UF alumna and incoming medical student at Cornell University, wrote in an email that the research reflects the core priorities of medical practice.
“This project will not only cause a waning number of patients with complications from a preventable flu, but serve as a reminder that in the field of medicine, it is very important to target conditions and prevent them before they need to be treated,” she said.