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Bat 'Super Immunity' Could Help Protect People From Diseases Like Ebola

Feb 23, 2016 02:18 PM EST
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Bats act as a natural host for more than 100 viruses, ranging from Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), to Ebola and Hendra virus. While these viruses can be lethal to humans, bats do not get sick or show any symptoms. It is believed that this unique ability could pave the way for boosting people's immunity towards infectious diseases. 

"Whenever our body encounters a foreign organism, like bacteria or a virus, a complicated set of immune responses are set in motion, one of which is the defense mechanism known as innate immunity," Dr. Michelle Baker, leading bat immunologist from the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO), said in a news release. "We focused on the innate immunity of bats, in particular the role of interferons -- which are integral for innate immune responses in mammals -- to understand what's special about how bats respond to invading viruses." 

In the latest study, researchers from CSIRO's Animal Health Laboratory examined the genes and immune system of a bat known as the Australian black flying fox. Unlike humans, bats keep their immune systems switched on 24/7. The idea is that this ability could be adapted in humans to better protect people from contracting deadly diseases like Ebola.

"Interestingly we have shown that bats only have three interferons which is only a fraction -- about a quarter -- of the number of interferons we find in people," Baker added in CSIRO's release. "This is surprising given bats have this unique ability to control viral infections that are lethal in people and yet they can do this with a lower number of interferons."

Researchers also compared two type 1 interferons -- alpha and beta -- which revealed bats express a heightened innate immune response even when they were not infected with any detectable virus.

"Unlike people and mice, who activate their immune systems only in response to infection, the bats interferon-alpha is constantly 'switched on' acting as a 24/7 front line defense against diseases," Baker explained. "In other mammalian species, having the immune response constantly switched on is dangerous -- for example it's toxic to tissue and cells -- whereas the bat immune system operates in harmony."

Therefore, researchers suggest that if they can manipulate other species' immune systems to behave more like that of a bat, they could greatly reduce the number of disease outbreaks worldwide. Their study was recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

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