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Keeping the Balance in Cytokines—Key to Healthy Animals

By Judy McBride
June 21, 2001

When a farm animal’s immune system reacts to viruses, bacteria or parasites, good communication among cells turns what could be chaos into coordination. Animals, like humans, rely on communication proteins called cytokines to orchestrate an immune response.

Knowing which cytokines are key to maintaining a balanced response will enable scientists to design therapies that stimulate the desired response, or suppress an excessive response that can stress the animals and steal farmers’ profits. And scientists will be able to select animals for breeding that have the genetic background to respond appropriately.

Agricultural Research Service scientists in the Immunology and Disease Resistance Laboratory at Beltsville, Md., are using these cytokines to answer basic questions about immune response in cattle and pigs. To do this, they prepare reagents that can be used to measure either the cytokines themselves or changes in their production.

To measure a cytokine directly, the researchers make monoclonal antibodies, molecules that attach to specific sites on a particular cytokine. Using these monoclonals, they can measure the amounts of cytokines produced at each stage of an infection or a vaccine trial. They can even identify the exact cell making the cytokine, according to research leader Joan K. Lunney, who has produced antibody panels for two pig cytokines.

To measure cytokine production, researchers make DNA “competitors,” which enable them to detect changes in expression of the gene that codes for that cytokine. So far, laboratory personnel have produced DNA competitors for 11 cytokines in pigs and 16 in cattle. And they have sent competitors to hundreds of investigators around the world. The researchers draw from the large database of human and mouse genes to prepare these competitors.

Now microbiologist Dante S. Zarlenga is working to get the big picture of immune response with “third-generation assays” that will show changes in expression of many cytokines at once.

Read more about this research in the June issue of Agricultural Research magazine.

ARS is the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s chief research agency.