The Super-Soldier Cells Hiding in Your Pus

Neutrophils also harbor one of the immune system’s most terrifying armaments: They can unspool the genetic material that’s normally packed into a tight wad at their center, freckle it with toxic proteins and compounds, and then spew it out their side like a lethal sneeze—a weaponization of their own DNA. The end product is a gummy, poisonous net called a neutrophil extracellular trap, or NET, that can massacre scores of microbes at once. But NETs are a double-edged sword: When cast under the wrong circumstances, they can harm their host, seeding serious blood clots or driving the symptoms of diseases as catastrophic as cancer, lupus, and COVID-19. Researchers around the world, scientifically snared by NETs, are now pouring resources into stopping them, and turning rogue neutrophils back onto our side.

Pus is a disgusting placard, but a useful one. It trumpets to the world that neutrophils were here. And they were absolutely metal.

Neutrophils should, by now, be a notorious bunch. Perhaps some of their biological clout has been obscured by their allegiance to the innate immune system, the oft-neglected branch of the body’s disease-stomping military that’s speedy, blunt, and rather imprecise. Unlike adaptive actors such as antibodies and T cells—which can remember past encounters with pathogens and repeatedly refine their defensive tactics—innate cells indiscriminately clobber anything in their vicinity that they don’t recognize, earning them a reputation among scientists as brainless brawn.

Even among the innaters, neutrophils have often been portrayed in textbooks as being particularly hapless: cells that rush headlong into sites of infection or injury, only to extinguish en masse before much of the real fighting—the war waged by more “sophisticated” cells—could actually begin. For decades, researchers would even claim that neutrophils didn’t count as classically immune. “Nobody thought they were interesting,” Denisa Wagner, an immunologist at Harvard who has been studying neutrophils for decades, told me. “Everybody was looking at antibodies, all this stuff that sounds sexy.” Neutrophils, by comparison, seemed a woefully boring bunch. To make things worse, they can’t be bred in labs, and must be collected fresh from blood or other bodily fluids every time they’re studied, making researchers loath to experiment with them.

The few scientists who did take up the inglorious mantle, however, quickly found a wealth of lore to uncover. Anna Huttenlocher, a rheumatologist and cell biologist at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, has spent years watching the cells zoom through tissues and built structures in the lab. They are, as she describes them, capable of remarkably elegant acrobatics, earning them verbiage as delightful as “rolling” and “tumbling” as they cavort through the blood. Neutrophils, Huttenlocher told me, are fast, flexible, and accurate when they travel, beating other cells to the punch, then entering the spaces that their comrades in arms cannot. “They are the best migrators in your body,” she said.


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