Scientists one step closer to understanding the body’s response to worms and allergies

Faculty scientists now have a better understanding of how bodies react to allergies and parasites. The team, led by Professor Andrew MacDonald, have discovered a new way that immune cells control inflammation during worm infections and in allergic responses to diseases like asthma. The finding is important because inflammation can cause long-term damage and so understanding how it is controlled will help mitigate its effects. Dendrite To do this, the team studied dendrites in both animal and lab models. Dendrites are specialised cells of the immune system that play a vital role in the initial response to both allergens and parasites. Their main function is to recognise infection and switch on channels to combat it – one of which is inflammation. How these channels were switched on by dendrites was previously unknown. What the team found was that a particular protein called Mbd2 plays a key role in allowing dendrites to produce an inflammatory response. When the proteins were removed, radically different cells were formed and these cells had a significantly impaired ability to switch on inflammation. It was also discovered that Mbd2 was an epigenetic regulator, meaning that it could modify the function of many different genes without altering their DNA structure. Professor MacDonald explains:

“For the first time we have identified that this protein is a key controller of dendritic cells during inflammation against parasitic worms or allergens. It’s an important step, as all inflammation is not identical, and scientists try to understand which specific cells and chemicals are more important in the body’s response to particular infections. In the past, medicines have had a broad approach, affecting all aspects of a condition rather than being targeted. In the future it might be possible to create medicines that control the inflammation caused specifically by an allergy or a parasitic worm, rather than by a virus such as a common cold.”

Professor MacDonald continues:

“With billions of people affected by both allergies and worm infections around the world it is vital that we develop better methods of treatment. It’s also important to tackle the inflammation caused by these conditions, as it has been shown to play a role in the development of longer term diseases such as asthma.”

Higher death toll not due to evolving Ebola virus

Faculty scientists have completed computer analysis of the deadly Ebola virus which has shown that it has not evolved to become any more deadly since its first outbreak almost 40 years ago.

Ebola Virus

The surprising results show that whilst the virus has undergone a high number of genetic changes, the virus has not become any more virulent. The findings, published in the journal Virology, help prove that the higher death toll in the current outbreak is not because of a change in the way the virus infects humans.

This may prove to be extremely useful. Professor David Robertson says:

“The fact that Ebola isn’t changing in a way that affects the virulence of the disease means that vaccines and treatments developed during this current outbreak have a very high chance of being effective against future outbreaks. It also means that methods to successfully tackle the virus should work again, so hopefully in the future an outbreak can be stopped from spreading at a much earlier stage.”

The team used a computational approach, developed by PhD student Abayomi Olabode, that was previously used to analyse changes in the HIV-1 virus. The major advantage of using a computer-based approach is that research can be carried out in a very quick and safe way – something that is vital when studying viral epidemics. Importantly, this type of modelling can be done in real time, meaning that scientists can better react to deadly diseases as they happen.

Viral outbreaks, such as Ebola, need to be continually monitored for any change, including those that make the virus less potent. If symptoms are less severe, there is a greater chance that the virus will go unidentified. Infected individuals can spread the virus more widely throughout a population, making it harder to trace those who have been exposed to it and ultimately causing more deaths. Professor Robertson comments:

“This level of surveillance will only become more essential in the fight against contagious illness as we live in an increasingly globally connected society.”

On the results of the study, Professor Tony Redmond, from the University’s Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute says:

“These are very important findings and emphasise that the spread of the virus in this outbreak owed as much to factors within the human community than within the virus itself.”

It is now thought that computer approaches like this one used to study Ebola will become the standard way to look at viral epidemics in the future.

Faculty researcher shortlisted for national award

Sheena CruickshankA project led by Faculty researcher Dr Sheena Cruickshank was shortlisted in the Engage Competition 2014, run by the National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement (NCCPE). The project, entitled ‘Educating Community Groups about Parasite Infection and its Impact,’ was praised for its work informing UK immigrants about how infections are transmitted.

Alongside Indira Mclean of Bolton College, Dr Cruickshank devised an education programme that is being used by language schools. The programme teaches people from around the world about how parasitic infections such as toxoplasma, whipworm, malaria, and schistosomes are caught, and how they can be prevented. Dr Cruickshank said:

“Globally, the biggest killer of people under 50 is infection. In countries where infections that are caused by gut worms are still very common, it is the main reason why children don’t get an education. We focused on explaining how people catch these infections, their global significance (in terms of prevalence and effects on global health and economy), and how they can be prevented.”

The programme underwent a pilot run during ESOL classes at Bolton College. The participants were of mixed nationalities including African, Iraqi, and Indian. Dr Cruickshank said:

“Apart from providing a vital information service, this is an incredible opportunity to learn from these people’s experiences. Hearing about worm infections and their impact on daily life has motivated many of us to change our research.”