Natural Killer T-cellsT-cells are a type of lymphocyte (itself a type of white blood cell) that circulates around the human body, scanning for cellular abnormalities and infections. Also known as T lymphocytes, they play a crucial role in cell-mediated immunity.

They are called T-cells because they mature in the thymus, a specialized organ of the immune system. These cells are differentiated from other lymphocytes, like B cells and NK cells (natural killer), because on their surface is a T-cell receptor (TCR).  There are many types of T-cells, namely: helper t-cells, cytotoxic, memory, regulatory, natural killer, and mucosal associated invariant t-cells.

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T-cells role in the immune system

T-cells are essential for human immunity. Although there are several t-cell types, they can be generally divided into two different categories: killer T-cells and helper T-cells. The first ones have a sort of ‘X-ray vision’ as they are able to see inside the body’s own cells only by scanning their surface, a mechanism that allows them to hunt down and kill cells infected with germs or that have become cancerous. The other key type of T-cells is the helper, with T-cells that are responsible for an immune response and are essential for immunity.

T-cells’ properties and responses

The study of T-cells is critically important, as they are the cells that control almost every single aspect of the adaptive immune response. T-cells’ multifunctional features allow them to scan the intracellular environment for external aggressors; directly kill cells infected by virus and bacteria; destroy cancer cells in a natural process; activate other immune cells that ingest germs;  help the cells that produce anti-infection molecules, known as antibodies; or even recall germs that they come across decades ago.

Immune responses that lead to rejection of a transplanted organ are also t-cells’ responsibility, as are autoimmune diseases (diabetes, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis etc.) and some allergic reactions, like gluten intolerance.

T-cell count test and results

The number of T-cells in the blood is measured through a blood sample. After the test, the sample is sent to a laboratory where white blood cells (including t-cells) are separated from the other blood cells.  A stain or substance that “labels” the cells is then added to the blood sample to help identify the presence of different white blood cells.

A T-cell count may be recommended by a doctor if the patient has signs of an immunodeficiency disorder or a disease of the lymph nodes, of it it is necessary to monitor if the therapy for these types of diseases is working.

Abnormal T-cell count results have different meanings, so higher than normal T-cell levels may be related with acute lymphocytic leukemia, babesiosis, hepatitis, infectious mononucleosis, multiple myeloma, or toxoplasmosis. Lower than normal T-cell levels may be due to AIDS, acute viral infection, aging, cancer, congenital T-cell deficiency, Hodgkin’s disease, immunodeficiency disorders, HIV infection, leukemia, Radiation therapy, steroid treatment or Waldenstrom’s macroglobulinemia.

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