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Surprising Science

University of Virginia

Scientific discoveries are often the product of painstaking research over years, but once in a while laboratories get lucky.  Such was the case at the University of Virginia’s  Immunology Center, where an effort to better understand the immune system led to a finding that could help treat anemia.  Sandy Hausman has that story. 

In his lab at the Carter Immunology Center, UVA Professor Thomas Braciale was hoping to learn more about how the human body fights off influenza.  Scientists identified a molecule called CD24 that appeared to stimulate the immune system.  To confirm that point, they injected infected mice with a substance that would block CD24 and perhaps impede recovery.

“What happened is something very different.," Braciale recalls. "The research fellow came back to me and said, 'The spleens of the mice have gotten gigantic,' and I said, ‘Go back and do the experiment again,’ which he did, and we got the same result.”

They then tried the experiment on healthy mice, and the same thing happened.  So what was going on in those rodent spleens?

“What happened when you stimulated this molecule CD24 is that you stimulated in the spleen and in the bloodstream of the mice the production of red blood cells," Braciale explains. "This was totally unexpected.”

But it could be a valuable finding for humans with anemia, since red blood cells carry Oxygen through our bodies, since  people who are anemic have low red blood cells, leading to decreased energy and constant exhaustion.

But would blocking CD24 produce the same result in people? Braciale thought so after altering the immune systems of his mice.

“The bone marrow in the blood system of the mouse is eliminated, and then human bone marrow cells are put in the mouse, so the mouse now has a human immune system,” Braciale explains.

His findings sparked questions from experts on blood.

“The community that deals with the production of red blood cells are the hematologists.  My background is a scientists is as an immunologist,  so I had the impression we were practicing hematology without a license.  There was some skepticism on their part, and it took a while to get published.”

But the data recently appeared in the Journal of Clinical Investigation, and journalists from as far away as the UK, Italy and Brazil called to learn more. Braciale plans to press ahead with his research, believing it could help people who don’t respond well to existing drugs for anemia or improve the effects of those medications.  He also wants the public to know that funding basic science does sometimes lead to important practical discoveries.