The guard posts of the immune system

The dendritic cells are named after the ramifications of their cell membrane, with which they can scan tissue and recognise pathogens. The cells, which are therefore also known as guard cells of the immune system, bind such foreign structures or parts of tumour cells, process them and move to the nearest lymph node. There they alert other immune cells such as T cells and trigger an immune response. "Dendritic cells connect the innate and the acquired immune system," says Diana Dudziak. "We know little about the function of the various dendritic cell populations as important regulators of the immune system and about when they occur in which tissue and why." This is precisely the field of research of the biologist, who has headed the Institute of Immunology at Jena University Hospital as a newly appointed professor since last semester.

Born in Thuringia, she studied Biology in Bayreuth and Erlangen and then completed her doctoral thesis on signalling processes of the Epstein-Barr virus at the Helmholtz Centre in Munich. With an Emmy Noether scholarship, she conducted research at Rockefeller University in New York and was then appointed Professor of Dendritic Cell Biology in Erlangen. Most recently, she was involved in several large research networks with her Emmy Noether junior research group and funding from the Bavarian Genome Research Network at the Department of Dermatology at the University Hospital Erlangen.

The function of dendritic cells in various tissues

Diana Dudziak: "We are looking at the function of dendritic cells in different tissues and how they can be stimulated and activated in the best possible way. This is relevant for the development of vaccines. One could imagine that the site of immunisation should be as close as possible to the natural route of infection in order to contribute to improved vaccination responses, for example when vaccinating against influenza using a nasal spray."

Other research topics include the role of dendritic cells in tumour development and metastasis. An important aspect here is that dendritic cells not only have to recognise tumour cells in an environment in which danger signals are greatly reduced, but also have to break through the barriers of a tumour. "Here we are working on understanding the ’other’ function of dendritic cells, namely the maintenance of tolerance. This is a mechanism that we need to prevent autoimmune reactions in our body. In a tumour response, however, this protective mechanism must be broken, as tumour cells are endogenous and our immune system has learned not to fight the body’s own tissue." Immunomodulation of dendritic cells is an important approach in the initiation of immune responses against a tumour.

Prof. Dudziak complements both the Jena Infection Research Network and the Central German Cancer Centre CCCG and sees ideal starting points for her work here: "Dendritic cells are an important anchor point that will connect the research groups in Jena that are interested in immunology. In future, we want to investigate, among other things, how the reduced immune defence can be reactivated as a long-term consequence of sepsis."