Neutrophils Coast to Coast

By Jason Socrates Bardi

To borrow a phrase from Thomas Hobbes, the lives of neutrophils are nasty, brutish, and short.

But unlike Hobbes' assessment of the life of man, the nasty, brutish, and short life of active neutrophils is a positive thing—for these are qualities that let them destroy bacteria and help us survive in a world filled with pathogens.

Our first line of defense against invading pathogens, neutrophils are the most common white blood cell in circulation. Their average life span is but a few hours in the bloodstream. After this, they move into the tissues to search out bacteria and fungi, which they kill with highly reactive oxidizing agents and toxic proteins.

"Neutrophils are very small cells, but they are very nasty microbicidal agents," says Bernard Babior, professor at The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) and an expert in neutrohils, which he has been studying for over 30 years. "An active neutrophil kills a bacterium in only a few seconds, using at least a dozen and a half mechanisms."

It is a good thing that neutrophils do what they do, because they are essential for life.

A Fish to Water

Babior's research on neutrophils has taken him from East Coast to West Coast and resulted in numerous honors, awards, and memberships in top scientific societies, including the National Academy of Sciences, to which he was elected in 1999.

He first began studying neutrophils in the early 1970s, when he was a faculty member at Harvard Medical School, a few years after finishing his Ph.D. with 1964 Nobel laureate Konrad Bloch. Babior pioneered research on the NAD(P)H oxidase and discovered that neutrophils produce superoxide, a discovery that opened a field of research now involving many types of cells and engaging the activities of laboratories around the world.

Shortly after these experiments, he moved within the Boston area to The New England Medical Center Hospital, where he worked for over a decade before coming to TSRI in the mid-1980s.

Having grown up and attended college in Los Angeles and having earned his medical degree at the University of California, San Francisco, Babior was delighted to be back on the West Coast. He still remembers the day he arrived—February 1, 1986.

"I was like a fish diving back into water," he says. "I love it here."

At TSRI, Babior continued his work on the oxidase. In addition, he has become involved in research on a related question that has produced some highly unusual results.

Neutrophils May be Ozone Factories

In a first for biology, TSRI President Richard Lerner and associates demonstrated two years ago that antibodies are able to produce ozone and other chemical oxidants when they are fed a reactive form of oxygen called singlet oxygen.

Ozone, which had never before been observed in biological systems, is a form of oxygen that exists naturally as a trace gas in the atmosphere. It is perhaps best known for its crucial role of absorbing ultraviolet radiation in the stratosphere, where it is concentrated in the so-called ozone layer, protecting life on earth from solar radiation. Ozone is also a familiar component of air in industrial and urban settings where the gas is a hazardous component of smog. However, ozone had never before been detected in biology.

That is, until late last year, when Lerner and Paul Wentworth, Jr. demonstrated that ozone was produced by antibodies and could destroy bacteria by poking holes in their cells walls.

This was a completely unexpected development, since for the last 100 years, immunologists believed that antibodies—proteins secreted into the blood by the immune system—acted only to recognize foreign pathogens and attract lethal "effector" immune cells to the site of infection.

The team has been slowly gathering evidence over the last few years that the human body produces the reactive gas as part of a mechanism to protect it from bacteria and fungi.

"Ozone was a big surprise," says Babior. "But it seems that biological systems manufacture ozone, and that ozone has an effect on those biological systems."

Neutrophils Potentially the Source of Singlet Oxygen

The question still remained, however, as to how the antibodies were making the ozone. Lerner and Wentworth knew that in order to make the ozone and other highly reactive oxidants, the antibodies had to use a starting material known as singlet oxygen, a rare, excited form of oxygen.

The question then became: What is the natural source of singlet oxygen in the body?

Babior, with his years of experience working with neutrophils, began collaborating with Lerner and Wentworth to investigate whether neutrophils could be a source of singlet oxygen that is required for ozone production.

Now, Babior, Wentworth, and TSRI colleagues are reporting in an upcoming issue of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that, indeed, the ozone appears to be produced in a process involving neutrophils and antibodies.

This work suggests that the antibacterial effect of neutrophils is enhanced by antibodies. In addition to killing the bacteria themselves, the neutrophils feed singlet oxygen to the antibodies, which convert it into ozone, adding weapons to the assault.

"This is really something new, and there are a million questions [that follow]," says Babior. "What does the ozone do to the body's proteins and nucleic acids? Can neutrophils make ozone without antibodies? Is ozone made by other cells? How long does ozone last in the body? And, most importantly, how will these discoveries help to cure disease?"

The research continues.



Go back to News & Views Index

Professor of Molecular and Experimental Medicine Bernard Babior describes neutrophils, which make up an important part of our immune system, as "very nasty microbicidal agents." Photo by Jason S. Bardi.