Researchers, including Adrià-Arnau Martí i Líndez and led by Christoph Hess (both Medicine, CITIID), have shown that the level of extracellular magnesium is an important factor in the immune system’s ability to tackle pathogens and cancer cells. The collaborative project, with the University of Basel, reported that T cells need a sufficient quantity of magnesium in order to operate efficiently. The findings may have important implications for cancer patients.
Magnesium deficiency is associated with a variety of diseases, such as infections and cancer. Previous studies have shown that cancerous growths spread faster in the bodies of mice when the animals received a low-magnesium diet – and that their defence against flu viruses was also impaired. However, there has so far been little research into how exactly this mineral affects the immune system.
Writing in the journal Cell, the researchers have discovered that T cells can eliminate abnormal or infected cells efficiently only in a magnesium-rich environment. Specifically, magnesium is important for the function of a T cell surface protein called LFA-1, which acts as a docking site, and plays a key role in the activation of T cells.
The fact that magnesium is essential for the functioning of T cells may be a highly significant finding for modern cancer immunotherapies. These therapies aim to mobilize the immune system – in particular cytotoxic T cells – to fight cancer cells.