Thursday, September 22, 2011

It's a bugs life!

Ever had the feeling that you shouldn't have done something really dopey? Well, when it comes to decision making, you may not be in as complete control as you thought you were. And that brilliant immune system of ours that's supposed to detect and delete all those germs that threaten our existence: has the "enemy" infiltrated it and is it quietly controlling how it functions?

The answer to both those questions is literally under the microscope, and the particular microscope of Prof Eric Denkers, a Veterinary Immunologist in the USA. He's been studying a ubiquitous germ called Toxoplasmosis gondii, that he charmingly describes as " especially promiscuous parasite", and which infects all warm blooded animals and most of the human population. Most of the time is quietly co-habits with its host organism, living peacefully within muscle or brain cells. However, if the host's immune system is deficient, then it can cause serious problems.

But it also has the ability to alter brain chemistry with jaw dropping results! In rats, for instance, it alters their brains activity in such a away as to make them fearless of cats - not a particularly smart move - as the cats always win and eat the infected rats allowing the Toxoplasmosis to enter and live in its favoured breeding ground, the intestine of the cat!

But it's influence on the immune system that has attracted Dr Denkers attention. In the past it was thought that Toxoplasmosis just sealed itself off from the surrounding environment and lay dormant. Now it appears that it actually modulates the immune cells ability to release a chemical known as a Cytokine, and which is the key to creating an inflammatory response. Too many Cytokines are not good for Toxoplasmosis as they attract more immune cells and that may lead to eradication of the organism. Too little Cytokines and the body's survival could be threatened from other infective organisms. It appears that Toxoplasmosis plays the immune system like a violin!

The up-side to all this is that this research is revealing how the immune system operates and the various "chemical signaling" systems that it uses in order to control and contain infection, and this will lead to new treatment options in the future.

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