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Glutathione is already popular as a master anti-oxidant and a detoxifier. Its role in immune functions is also well-known. It boosts the production as well as functions of white blood cells, particularly T cells, a highly specialized army of white blood cells that attack and destroy all kinds of pathogens, including cancer cells. Glutathione also protects the immune cells from oxidation by free radicals and removes metabolic waste, thus reducing cellular toxicity and death.
A new study published in the journal ‘Immunity’ shows that glutathione is more involved in boosting immunity than previously imagined. The study revealed that that glutathione helps to regulate the metabolic activity of T cells.  Let’s find out more.
Glutathione regulates energy metabolism within T cells
Scientists have discovered a new mechanism through which our immune system activates its immune cells. Professor Dirk Brenner, the study leader, explained that our body keeps our immune system carefully balanced – neither too active nor sluggish.  An immune system with a hyperactive response would attack the body’s own healthy cells and tissues, something that happens in autoimmune disorders such as arthritis, lupus, multiple sclerosis and Crohn’s disease. On the other hand, a weak or underactive immune system would not be able to defend the body from infection and disease causing pathogens.
To avoid hyperactivity, T cells of the immune system usually remain in the state of ‘alert hibernation’. They get up and about when they sense the presence of pathogens. Until that happens, their energy requirement is low but as these defender cells need energy to expand and to fight and kill the pathogen, this means they are required to pump up their metabolism. This increased metabolic activity results in excessive generation of metabolic by-products such as free radicals and reactive oxygen species.
While a small amount of ROS and free radicals work as signalling molecules and support immune functions, high concentrations of free radicals in the cells damage cellular DNA and even cause cell death. 
Like all cells, T cells also produce antioxidants such as glutathione to neutralize the metabolic waste and prevent toxicity and cellular damage. So far so good. But the team found glutathione doing something more.
Going a step further, the team discovered that the glutathione produced by activated T cells not only eliminates the metabolic debris and free radicals but also supports T cells’ rising energy needs.
It so happens that T cells work when a specific gene (Gclc) is expressed. This gene is responsible for making a protein that in turn produces glutathione. What glutathione does is that it stimulates energy metabolism of T cells. This helps T cells to proliferate, grow and kill foreign invaders like germs and viruses. While glutathione is not required for waking up and activating T cells initially, it helps T cells to grow and trigger immune responses required to fight infections and even cancer.
This study, undertaken in 2012, reported that, “GSH-deficient T cells initially undergo normal activation but cannot reprogram their metabolism to meet their rising energy needs.”
Glutathione helps to create energy balance within the immune cells, needed for proper functions. This means that without glutathione, T cells would still be activated but won’t have the energy supply to stimulate necessary responses. In this case, our immune defense would only be in stand-by mode, making us prone to infections, tumor growth and other diseases.
The study researchers believe that these findings could be an important stepping stone to developing new strategies to treat cancer and auto-immune disorders.
- T W Mak et al. Glutathione Primes T Cell Metabolism for Inflammation. Immunity. April 2017.
- Luxembourg Institute of Health. Master detox molecule boosts immune defenses: Scientists discover an unknown immune mechanism. ScienceDaily. 18 April 2017.
- Sena LA1, Chandel NS. Physiological roles of mitochondrial reactive oxygen species. Mol Cell. 2012