CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (CBS19 NEWS) -- Researchers have learned that certain kinds of immune cells can remember and defend against repeated infections from the same disease.

According to a release, scientists are counting on the human immune system’s memory to provide long-term protection against severe COVID-19 infections.

Researchers at the University of Virginia School of Medicine and their collaborators have learned that immune cells called central memory CD8+ T cells can react when they encounter an old foe.

Even while the antibodies wane, these cells go into a standby mode, waiting in case the body should experience a subsequent infection.

The release says this understanding of how these cells work could lead to new ways to boat the body’s ability to fight infectious disease and cancer.

“Our work showed how important genes are turned on from the chromosomes in this particular type of immune cells when these cells wake up to fight invading viruses or bacteria that they memorized from previous battles,” said researcher Chongzhi Zang, PhD, a computational biologist with UVA’s Center for Public Health Genomics and Department of Public Health Sciences. “A deeper understanding of how the genome works in each different immune cell type can have implications for developing novel therapeutics to harness the immune system against not only infectious diseases in a pandemic but also cancer, which still takes numerous lives every year.” 

Antibodies are just one part of the body’s immune response to infection, and they do naturally decline over time.

So it becomes the responsibility of memory immune cells to remember a virus, or other pathogens, and be ready to fend off another attack.

When the body contains these cells, the immune system doesn’t have to start from the beginning every time it encounters the same germ.

The release says this work raises the curtain on how central memory CD8+ T cells jump into action when needed.

Most of the time, they are dormant, but they can quickly be activated when a virus or other pathogen approaches.

The researchers looked at a particular protein in the cell nucleus, called Tcf1, and found that it was vital to the cells waking up when needed.

When a familiar pathogen is detected, the cells’ chromosomes unpack, with this protein steering the way they open.

This means the chromosomes take a form that allows certain genes to be activated, launching a strong immune response, which can include the production of specialized cells to deal with the pathogen.

Scientists hope to be able to use this protein to help immune systems fight pathogens and tumors.

These findings have been published in the scientific journal Nature Immunology.