What is the physiological function of mast cells?
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Under physiological conditions, skin mast cells preferentially localize around nerves, blood vessels and hair follicles. This observation, which dates back to Paul Ehrlich, intuitively suggests that these enigmatic, multifacetted protagonists of natural immunity are functionally relevant to many more aspects of tissue physiology than just to the generation of inflammatory and vasodilatory responses to IgE-dependent environmental antigens. And yet, for decades, mainstream-mast cell research has been dominated by a focus on the -undisputedly prominent and important - mast cell functions in type I immune responses and in the pathogenesis and management of allergic diseases. Certainly, it is hard to believe that the very large and rather selectively distributed number of mast cells in normal, uninflamed, non-infected, non-traumatized mammalian skin or mucosal tissue simply hanging around there lazily day and night, just wait for the odd allergen or parasite-associated antigen to come by so the mast cell can finally swing into action. Indeed, the past decade has witnessed a renaissance of mast cell research 'beyond allergy', along with a more systematic exploration of the surprisingly wide range of physiological functions that mast cells may be involved in. The current debate sketches many exciting horizons that have recently come into our vision during this intriguing, ongoing search.
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