B-cells and T-cells

This page was reviewed under our medical and editorial policy by

Maurie Markman, MD, President, Medicine & Science

This page was reviewed on July 12, 2022.

When the body is invaded by bacteria, a virus or parasites, an alarm goes off, setting off a chain reaction of cellular activity in the immune system. Macrophages or other innate immune cells, such as basophils, dendritic cells or neutrophils, may be deployed to help attack the invading pathogen. Those cells often do the job, and the invader is destroyed. But sometimes, when the body needs a more sophisticated attack, it turns to its T-cells and B-cells. These cells are the special ops of the immune system—a line of defense that uses past behaviors and interactions to learn to recognize specific foreign threats and attack them when they reappear.

They may also play a critical role in the development and treatment of cancer. T-cells, especially, are the focal point for two emerging immunotherapy treatments: checkpoint inhibitors, which have been federally approved to treat multiple cancers, and CAR T-cell therapy, which is used to treat some cancers of the bloodstream, such as leukemia and lymphoma.

This article will cover:

How does the immune system work?

The immune system is made up of two armies of cells.

Innate immune cells are the body's first line of defense. They quickly respond to foreign cells to fight infection, battle a virus or defend the body against bacteria. T-cells and B-cells react when invading organisms slip through that first line using a process called acquired immunity (or adaptive immunity). These cells may take a long time to develop, because their behaviors evolve from learned experiences, but they tend to live longer than innate cells.

Adaptive immune cells remember foreign invaders after their first encounter and fight them off the next time they enter the body. This is the fundamental premise for how vaccines work—using a small, harmless amount of protein from a disease so the immune system can recognize that protein if the pathogen were to invade the body.

Lymphocytes are a type of white blood cell in the immune system. B-cells and T-cells are the two main types of lymphocytes. There are primary and secondary organs involved in the complex development of lymphocytes, but in most cases, B- and T-lymphocytes are generated in bone marrow and in the thymus.

What are B-cells?

B-cells produce antibodies to fight bacteria and viruses. These antibodies are Y-shaped proteins that are specific to each pathogen and are able to lock onto the surface of an invading cell and mark it for destruction by other immune cells. 

B-lymphocytes and cancer have a complicated relationship. For example, B-cells sometimes inhibit tumor development by producing antibodies that may attack cancer cells or oncogenic viruses, such as human papillomavirus (HPV), which is responsible for most cervicalanal, penile and other reproductive cancers. Other times, regulatory B-cells may release immune-suppressive cytokines that stifle an anti-tumor response.

What are T-cells?

T-cells attack other cells in the body that have become cancerous or that were overtaken by viruses.

Types of T-cells

There are two main types of T-cells:

Helper T-cells stimulate B-cells to make antibodies and help killer cells develop. 

Killer T-cells or cytotoxic T-cells directly kill cells that have already been infected by a foreign invader. 

What do T-cells do?

T-cells also use cytokines as messenger molecules to send chemical instructions to the rest of the immune system to ramp up its response. Activating T-cells against cancer cells is the basis behind checkpoint inhibitors, a relatively new class of immunotherapy drugs that have recently been federally approved to treat lung cancer, melanoma and other difficult cancers. Cancer cells often evade patrolling T-cells by sending signals that make them seem harmless. Checkpoint inhibitors disrupt those signals and prompt the T-cells to attack the cancer cells.

Researchers are also developing a technology called CAR T-cell therapy, in which T-cells are engineered to attack specific cancer cells. In this treatment, a patient’s T-cells are collected and genetically engineered to produce chimeric antigen receptors (CAR). This is designed to allow the T-cells to recognize a specific protein on the tumor cells. These engineered CAR T-cells are grown by the billions in the laboratory and then infused into a patient’s body, where the cells are designed to multiply and recognize the cancer cells that express the specific protein. This technology, also called adoptive cell transfer, is being considered a potential next-generation immunotherapy cancer treatment. 

B-cells vs. T-cells

While B-cells produce antibodies to fight infection, T-cells protect people from getting infected by destroying cancerous and infected cells. B-cells are also far more likely than T-cells to mutate into a liquid cancer such as chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) or B-cell lymphoma.

While both are critical to the body's defense against disease and infection, T-cells and B-cells play very different roles. CAR T-cell therapy and checkpoint inhibitors are examples of how researchers are using what they’ve learned about T-cells specifically in developing new cancer treatments. But as their differences and similarities show, both types of immune cells employ important natural defenses in helping the body fight cancer.

Learn why some cancer treatments may damage the immune system.

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