Monday, March 21, 2011

Fighting off the Flu with Bacteria?

For many people, bacteria seem inexplicably disgusting and we attempt to rid ourselves of bacteria, both good and harmful. However, without bacteria, the human body would fail to have a normally functioning immune system, as was discovered by scientists in 1950s. Since this discovery, the role of bacteria in the immune system development and response has been extensively studied, with the knowledge of this friendly bacterial primarily confined to the digestive system. Furthermore, a recent study provides some evidence in bacteria helping with immune system response properties in the lungs, in particular relationship with the flu.

The flu is a highly contagious respiratory illness, caused by the influenza virus. It can cause mild-severe illness, that can lead to death in highly susceptible populations who are immunocompromised such as the very young, elderly, and people with chronic diseases such as diabetes, cancer and heart disease (CDC ). Each year teams of researchers collect strains of flu circulating in the Southern Hemisphere and determine which strains will become the most virulent and contagious. With this research of newly emerging or evolving flu strains, onto the scene of infectious disease, a new vaccine is developed with the influenza strains expected cause illness. Then each fall and winter, Public Health officials urge the public to get their annual flu vaccine, in preventing the flu. However, nearly 36,000 people succumb to the flu each year, mostly the medically fragile populations, being particularly vulnerable to the flu. Now promising new research from the country's leading scientists are suggesting that bacteria play a role in preventing the flu virus from attacking the body, by helping to implement an immune response, not only in the digestive system, but in the lungs.

A team of researchers, led by Akiko Iwasaki, an immunologist from Yale University, in New Haven Connecticut have discovered that mice treated with neomyocin antibiotics were more susceptible to the influenza virus than mice in the control group. During the study, Iwasaki and her team treated the mice with four different antibiotics that are commonly given in humans with bacterial infections and then they were infected with the flu. Then Iwasaki and her team studied the effects of bacteria, which “kick-stared the flu-fighting pathway by activating proteins involved with inflammatory defense, which activates the cytokine interleukin that triggers dendritic immune cells to migrate to lymph nodes in the lungs" (Maxmen 2011). Once in the lungs, these immune cells begin a potent attack on influenza viruses. In the mice which were treated with neomyocin antibiotics, it was found that the inflammatory initiating proteins, were not activated and the influenza virus multiplied.

Although the exact bacteria that comes into play is not completely known, according Iwasaki, it is suggested that “the bacteria involved in this response is from the Lactobacillus species, because the mice treated with antibiotics, wipes out the Lactobacillus populations that are found in the gut." With roughly 100 trillion bacteria residing on/within the human body, this study highlights the importance of friendly bacteria, not only in known studies from the benefits in the gut, but also immune response in the lungs.


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