Mast cells or “Mastzellen” were first described by Paul Ehrlich in his 1878 thesis. The metachromatic cells were shown to be concentrated around blood vessels, nerves, and glandular ducts as well as inflammatory and neoplastic foci. The cells originate from hematopoietic stem cells in the bone marrow. Because of their importance in allergen/IgE-mediated allergic reactions, most of the studies on mast cells have traditionally focused on their role in allergy. However, the last fifteen years have witnessed the changing tide and this field has provided convincing evidence that these cells are an important physiological player in innate immunity, adaptive immunity, and immune tolerance. Mast cells can be activated by an invaded pathogen, control the migration of antigen-presenting dendritic cells or work themselves as antigen-presenting cells, thus contribute to the initiation of innate immune and adaptive immune reactions. On the other hand, mast cells recruited under certain conditions are essential for successful organ transplantion, thus crucial for immune tolerance. In addition to immediate hypersensitivity and host defense against certain parasites and bacteria, a better understanding of mast cells’ role in airway inflammation or asthma was recently furnished. We have also seen a great progress in their pathogenic role in autoimmune diseases including experimental allergic encephalomyelopathy (EAE) and rheumatoid arthritis. Furthermore, recent studies suggest that mast cells participate in atherosclerosis and obesity.
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