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Thursday, March 24, 2011

Roundworms versus sepsis

Researchers from the Universities of Singapore, Liverpool, Glasgow and Strathclyde have come up with a potential treatment for sepsis. They found that a protein extracted from roundworms suppresses the catastrophic inflammation that often leads to death.

Sepsis, also called blood poisoning, can result from an unchecked infection that spreads through the bloodstream. The body reacts to this threat by undergoing a systemic inflammatory response. In up to half of all cases, the eventual prognosis is organ failure and death. There is a clear need for better treatments.

Enter the humble roundworm, Acanthocheilonema viteae, actually a parasitic nematode. These tiny creatures, barely visible to the naked eye, infect as many as a quarter of the world’s population. They also secrete a protein called ES-62 that is known to suppress inflammation. The ES-62 protein induces a process of autophagy (‘self-eating’) in which damaged cells and tissues are cleared from the body, preventing systemic inflammation and leaving healthy tissue.

This property is sometimes exploited by people suffering from allergies or autoimmune diseases, who willingly infect themselves with the little worms. Happily, the researchers, led by Alirio Melendez of the National University of Singapore, have found that the protein alone works just as well. The scientists induced sepsis in mice, and then successfully protected those mice from septic shock by administering ES-62.

Melendez anticipates using this protein to treat humans as well:

The findings suggest that ES-62 could be used to induce autophagy and reduce the overwhelming inflammation that is responsible for the massive tissue damage seen in sepsis.

Hopefully, further experiments will bear him out.