A green tea compound was recently found to have a powerful ability to increase the number of T cells that play a regulatory role, a key participant in the immune system function.

Emily Ho, of the Linus Pauling Institute, located at Oregon State University, says that this finding may be one of the reasons that green tea is beneficial in controlling inflammation, improving  immune system function and preventing cancer.

Drugs with a similar function, have be the source of great interest and research among pharmaceutical companies, but they have toxicity problems.

Dr. Ho notes, “This appears to be a natural, plant-derived compound that can affect the number of regulatory T cells, and in the process improve immune function.

“When fully understood, this could provide an easy and safe way to help control autoimmune problems and address various diseases.”

In this study, the researchers experimented with the green tea compound, EGCG, a powerful polyphenol, antioxidant with known health benefits.  EGCG is believed to be responsible for many of green tea’s beneficial properties. It possesses anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory characteristics.

The researchers found that EGCG caused a larger number of regulatory T cells to be produced.  While it’s effects weren’t as potent as drugs, but had fewer concerns about toxicity or long term use.

“EGCG may have health benefits through n epigenetic mechanism, meaning we aren’t changing the underlying DNA codes, but just influencing  what gets expressed, what cells get turned on, Dr. Ho says.

Laboratory studies done with mice, Ho said, showed that treatment with EGCG significantly increased the numbers and frequencies of regulatory T cells found in spleen and lymph notes, and in the process helped to control the immune response.

“Epigenetic regulation can be potentially exploited in generating suppressive regulatory T cells for therapeutic purposes, and is of significant clinical importance for the suppression of autoimmune diseases,” the researchers said in their study.

The research was done by scientists from OSU, the University of Connecticut, and Changwon National University in South Korea. The work was supported by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the Oregon Agricultural Experiment Station.

The study was published in Immunology Letters.