A collaborative study has made a breakthrough characterising new immune cells in cattle which could change how livestock diseases are treated.

The cells are called mucosal-associated invariant T (MAIT) cells.

Human MAIT cells have been shown to tackle bacterial and viral infections, as well as playing a role in wound healing and vaccine response.

However, the development marks the first time that they have been characterised in cattle, and could open new avenues for investigating and treating both livestock and human diseases.

What the cells do

Human MAIT cells are activated by various environmental signals which can trigger them to either promote antimicrobial activity or tissue repair.

They are known to be involved in the immune response against various bacteria and viruses like influenza, HIV and hepatitis C, where they activate other immune cells which then kill infected cells.

The research was carried out by scientists at The Pirbright Institute alongside University of Oxford, University of Melbourne/Doherty Institute, University of Edinburgh’s Roslin Institute, Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA), Utrecht University, and The University of Queensland.

The study, published in Frontiers in Immunology, demonstrated that cattle MAIT cells were extremely similar to human MAIT cells.

They were mainly located in mucosal tissues (which cover internal organs and cavities) as well as in the lymph nodes (parts of the immune system that help to fight infection).

The team also established that the cattle MAIT cells were stimulated by similar signals to their human counterparts, and showed that they are activated in response to cattle bacterial infections.

Dr. Elma Tchilian, head of the Mucosal Immunology group at Pirbright, said: “The highly conserved nature of MAIT cells demonstrated in this study suggests that they may well have an important function in protection against infection. This work was made possible because of truly international collaboration.”

As well as being an economically important livestock species, cattle also provide large animals model for human infections, such as tuberculosis and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). The data and tools used in this research will facilitate the study of MAIT cell biology during immunisation and infection.

Dr. Matthew Edmans, first author of the paper, said: “The identification and characterisation of these cells in cattle is a significant first step. Further investigation of MAIT cells in cattle may provide avenues for treating infections in both cattle and humans, such as foot-and-mouth disease and RSV.”

This work was funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), part of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) as well as the Australian Research Council (ARC).