Magnesium deficiency has been linked to a number of diseases, including infections and cancer.
Previous research has found that when mice were fed a low-magnesium diet, malignant growths propagated faster in their tissues, and their protection against flu viruses was also compromised.
However, little research has been done on how this mineral impacts the immune system specifically.
Now, a team of researchers led by Professor Christoph Hess of the University of Basel’s Department of Biomedicine and University Hospital Basel, as well as the University of Cambridge’s Department of Medicine, have discovered that T cells can efficiently eliminate abnormal or infected cells only in environments rich in magnesium. Magnesium, in particular, is required for the function of LFA-1, a T cell surface protein.
LFA-1 serves as a docking site for T lymphocytes, which is important for their activation.
“However, in the inactive state this docking site is in a bent conformation and thus cannot efficiently bind to infected or abnormal cells,” explains Christoph Hess. “This is where magnesium comes into play. If magnesium is present in sufficient quantities in the vicinity of the T cells, it binds to LFA-1 and ensures that it remains in an extended – and therefore active – position.”
Findings that could be beneficial to cancer patients
The finding that magnesium is required for T cell function could have major implications for present cancer immunotherapies. These treatments try to activate the immune system – specifically cytotoxic T cells – in order to combat cancer cells. The researchers were able to demonstrate that an increase in the local magnesium concentration in tumors improved the immune response of T cells against cancer cells in experimental models.
“In order to verify this observation clinically, we’re now looking for ways to increase the concentration of magnesium in tumors in a targeted manner,” adds Christoph Hess.
Further analyses conducted by the research team working with Christoph Hess and his Postdoc, Dr. Jonas Lötscher, the main author of the study, reveal the potential nature of these tactics.
Using data from previously completed cancer patient studies, the researchers were able to demonstrate that immunotherapies were less successful in patients with low magnesium levels in their blood.
According to Lötscher, the issue of whether regular magnesium intake affects the chance of getting cancer cannot be answered based on current research.
“As a next step, we’re planning prospective studies to test the clinical effect of magnesium as a catalyst for the immune system.”
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