Discovering the paradoxical nature of cells in newborns

Immunology in the Department of Dentistry

Shokrollah ElahiFew things are as fragile as a newborn. They can’t hold up their own heads. They are fully dependent on their caregiver for everything. So when your fragile baby gets an infection, as the caregiver, it can be extremely stressful and painful; sadly, it’s an all too common occurrence.
Infants are highly susceptible to developing infections and immune disorders like allergies, asthma and inflammatory bowel diseases, which has always puzzled Shokrollah Elahi, assistant professor of immunology in the Department of Dentistry.
“[I wanted to ask] a simple and basic question that I always had,” he said “why are newborns more susceptible to infections than adults?”
His research discovered that newborns only have about 30 per cent of the same cells as adults–the other 70 per cent are absent in adults. These cells, named “CD71+ cells” are actually immature red blood cells. They act as an immune suppressant for newborns, which is why newborns are more susceptible to infections, but on the flip side, allow the swift adaptation of the good bacteria in the gut.
CD71+ cells are paradoxical. “If we deplete or remove these cells from newborns, they become more resistant to infection; however, they develop inflammation in their gut,” said Elahi.
Recently awarded the CIHR New Investigator in Maternal, Reproductive, Child and Youth Health national research award, Elahi will be able to continue researching these immature red blood cells to see how they interact with other immune cells and impact diseases. The CIHR award was supported by matching funds from the Stollery Children’s Hospital Foundation.
“Sometimes simple questions are not answered,” noted Elahi. “This simple question I had resulted in a huge discovery that may also address a major problem.” The discovery of CD71+ cells has opened up a new realm of research for Elahi and many others. These immature red blood cells could be the key to helping us understand not only infants’ immune development, but also our overall immunology. The avenues for research in this area are infinite for Elahi and his team. With so many possibilities, the potential impact on the healthcare world seems limitless.
Shokrollah Elahi’s research has been supported by fund matching from the Stollery Children’s Hospital Foundation through WCHRI.