At a relatively young age, Albert Bendelac made a discovery that caused a stir among immunologists around the world. He characterized a type of T cell, called a natural killer T (NKT) cell, that is unusual because instead of proteins, it targets lipids, which are often bound to carbohydrates. His findings pointed to a new role for T cells—one indicating that NKT cells serve as a bridge between innate and adaptive immunity.
Bendelac and his colleagues have been instrumental in showing that lipids and glycolipids have specialized functions in the immune system that are now being tied to autoimmune and infectious diseases, cancer, and vaccine development. Their metabolic pathways and enzymes have been partially mapped, but fundamental aspects of their trafficking and interactions with protein receptors, their signaling properties, and other functions remain a mystery.
Regarded as the intellectual leader of the nascent field of lipid-mediated immunity, Bendelac's work is at the frontier between immunology and the field of lipid biology—including cell biology of lipids, lipid biochemistry, and lipid signaling. His research focuses on the membrane receptor family CD1, which captures intracellular lipids and glycolipids of self and foreign origin for presentation to T cells. He has revealed essential components of the CD1-mediated lipid presentation pathway.
Bendelac provided evidence that iGb3, a sugary lipid that interacts with CD1 and plays a key role in regulating the response of NKT cells, is a component of the immune system that plays an important role in preventing cancer, fighting infections, and perhaps triggering or avoiding autoimmune diseases. NKT cells contribute to the host's decision to respond to microbial and self antigens, including tumor antigens, and learning all the rules of NKT cell behavior will have important consequences for treating many human diseases.
Dr. Bendelac is also Professor of Pathology at the University of Chicago.
RESEARCH ABSTRACT SUMMARY:
Albert Bendelac studies innate lymphocytes, with a focus on NKT cells and their recognition of self- and microbial glycolipids presented by major histocompatibility-like molecules of the CD1 family. This research has direct implications for disease conditions such as microbial and viral infections, cancer, allergic inflammation (asthma), inflammatory bowel disease, and autoimmunity. His lab also studies synthetic ligands of innate lymphocytes, as potential adjuvants of infectious and cancer vaccines.
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Photo: Aynsley Floyd/AP, © HHMI