Discovery may help us combat common illnesses like flu

Scientists at Trinity College Dublin have discovered how the body fights infection, and this may pave the way for potential new means of battling common illnesses, such as flu.

The work of the team at TCD, led by assistant professor of immunology, Dr Nigel Stevenson, could restore our natural immunity to a spectrum of viruses, including those that have developed resistance.

According to the researchers, during any viral infection, human cells produce an immune molecule, called interferon, which ‘interferes’ with the battle plans of attacking viruses, preventing them from replicating in our bodies.

When our cells are stimulated by interferon, molecules within our cells are activated, and when the final one falls the cell should be able to clear the viral infection.

This cascade of molecules is termed a ‘signalling pathway’, as it passes the ‘danger signal’ of viral infection through the cell.

Many viruses are not cleared by the body’s natural immune response and can often cause serious illness.

The TCD immunologists have now discovered that the viruses have evolved numerous methods to inhibit these signalling pathways, and thereby block responses to interferon.

Scientists had believed that they fully understood how the interferon signalling pathway worked, but by using a series of viral infections, and cutting-edge molecular techniques, Dr Stevenson’s team discovered a new anti-viral role for the molecule known as STAT3.

“For decades, we have known that STAT3 is essential for healthy cell growth, but our new revelation identifies it for the first time as an essential anti-viral component in the interferon signalling pathway,” Dr Stevenson said.

“In fact, we found that, without STAT3, cells cannot fight the common flu virus or the pox vaccinia virus.

“Of course, a major goal of our ongoing work is to find solutions to the real-world problems faced by the thousands of people who cannot clear certain viruses after they have been infected,” Dr Stevenson said.

“This discovery opens the door to new therapeutic options, which, we hope, will be able to help people restore their natural immunity against a host of problematic viruses.”

  • The full research paper, which is published by ‘Cellular and Molecular Life Sciences’, can be read at:

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