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A study from Oxford and Basel universities may point the way to maintaining our immune systems as we get older.

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In a paper in the journal Nature Immunology, scientists explain how they uncovered the effects of a protein called Foxn1, which is a critical factor in the development of an effective immune system.

Humans, like all higher animals, use T cells as part of the immune system, to fight off infections and cancer. T cells are generated in an organ called the thymus, where they closely interact with thymic epithelial cells (TEC) as they mature. People without TEC cannot generate T cells, severely compromising the immune system and consequently increasing the risk for life threatening infections and cancer.

More than 20 years ago the transcription factor Foxn1 was identified as an essential molecule for the normal development of TEC. However, the genes directly controlled by Foxn1 – and thus responsible for the various TEC functions – have remained unidentified.

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