DEC 02, 2015 12:52 PM PST

The Appendix Isn't So Vestigial After All

WRITTEN BY: Kara Marker
New research shows the appendix isn't as unnecessary as previously though. In fact, an entire group of innate lymphoid cells (ILCs) are recruited to protect the appendix.

Scientists from Melbourne's Walter and Eliza Hall Institute team up with scientists from the Centre d’Immunologie de Marseille-Luminy in France to study the role of ILCs in digestive health, and their results were published in Nature Immunology this week. 

ILCs come from the same lineage as other lymphocytes, but they "do not express antigen-specific receptors," making them uniquely able to protect immunocompromised individuals from bacterial infections (Nature). The appendix serves as a "natural resevoir" for beneficial bacteria, and ILCs work to protect this resevoir from damage and inflammation during harmful bacterial infections. 

According to Healthline, more than 250,000 appendictomies are performed annually, dubbed the "most common medical emergency" in the United States. These procedures are certainly not done in vain; obstruction of the appendix leads to bacterial multipication, pus formation, and increased pressure that can block blood flow and cause the appendix to rupture and contaminate the abdomen with fecal matter. However, the scientists from this study have shown that a healthy appendix is not simply taking up space in your body. 
An illustration of the microbiome

A healthy collection of beneficial bacteria, called the microbiome, is vital for digestive health. Many microbiomes are being depleted through the overuse of antibiotics. Therefore, it is important to protect the appendix in addition to regulating antibiotic use to avoid procedures like fecal transplants for microbiome replenishment. 

To protect the appendix, multiple layers of ILCs create a protective barrier that shield the appendix from damage and consistently fight bacterial infections. “When one layer is depleted, the body has ‘back ups’ that can fight the infection,” said Gabrielle Belz, PhD, from Melbourne.

People with compromised immune system can especially benefit from ILC protective mechanisms since they are lacking other immune cells to mount an effective immune response during an invasion. Among the immunocompromised are people undergoing cancer treatment, people receiving immunosuppressant drugs after receiving a major organ transplant to avoid rejection, people with autoimmune diesase, babies, and the elderly. ILCs survive cancer treatments that wipe out other immune cell populations.

Promoting ILC production in the body is as easy as eating leafy green vegetables, capitalizing on the healthy proteins they contain. 

The collaborative team who conducted this study plan to further investigate the role of ILCs in the intestines and what capabilties they might have in treating or preventing disease. 

Watch the following video from NPR to learn more about the importance of the microbiome in your body.

Source: Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research
About the Author
  • I am a scientific journalist and enthusiast, especially in the realm of biomedicine. I am passionate about conveying the truth in scientific phenomena and subsequently improving health and public awareness. Sometimes scientific research needs a translator to effectively communicate the scientific jargon present in significant findings. I plan to be that translating communicator, and I hope to decrease the spread of misrepresented scientific phenomena! Check out my science blog: ScienceKara.com.
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