Natural chemical produced by the body shows promise in preventing lethal flu infections, UTHSCT researcher says

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Research by a team of scientists at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Tyler indicates that a natural chemical produced by the body boosts the immune system and protects against lethal flu infections.

If their results are confirmed in future clinical trials, research by lead investigator Amir Shams, Ph.D., and the UTHSCT team could change the way people are protected against the flu. Rather than getting an annual flu shot, individuals might be able to use a nasal spray that boosts their lungs’ immune system, enabling them to fight off the flu.

“If we had a flu pandemic, we could use this chemical to increase the innate immunity of the population,” said Dr. Shams, associate professor of microbiology and immunology at UTHSCT.

That would provide a head start in protecting people, because creating a vaccine against a new and deadly flu strain takes time, and flu viruses mutate very quickly, he said.

“In addition, the flu vaccine doesn’t work as well in older people, and it takes two weeks after you get a flu shot to build up your immunity,” he added. Adults 65 years of age and older have an increased risk of developing serious complications from the flu, according to the National Institutes of Health.

The first line of defense
The research done by Dr. Shams and the UTHSCT team recently was published in the online edition of the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, a prestigious journal published by the American Thoracic Society.

“Our innate immune system is the first line of defense, a way of protecting us against germs that cause disease. Our team thought that, by stimulating the innate response, we’d be able to boost immunity in the lungs and prevent individuals from getting the flu,” Dr. Shams said.

UTHSCT President Dr. Kirk A. Calhoun expressed his pride in the achievements made by Dr. Shams and the UTHSCT team.

“Our researchers and physicians have identified a potential treatment that may save the lives of up to half a million people worldwide annually who die from the flu,” Dr. Calhoun said.

“I also want to thank our donors who help fund this cutting-edge research, including all of those who have contributed to the Texas Lung Injury Institute at UTHSCT, as well as Joseph and Louise Ornelas for their support of aging research on our campus. Their contributions made this medical advance possible,” he added.

’A very important advance’
UTHSCT Vice President for Research Steven Idell, MD, Ph.D., echoed Dr. Calhoun’s comments.

“This could be a very important advance, as 40,000 people in the United States die every year from the flu. This discovery provides hope for these patients, and for those who become seriously ill even after getting a flu shot or being treated with the drugs currently available for the flu,” said Dr. Idell, who was part of the research team and contributed to the paper.

“I am especially gratified that this very exciting scientific work – which could have a big impact on so many people’s lives – was done right here in East Texas, at UTHSCT,” he said. The journal in which the work appeared is one of the top publications in the field of pulmonary medicine, Dr. Idell added.

Dr. Shams said the protective chemical studied by the UTHSCT research team enables immune system cells to signal each other, helping to regulate the system. Scientists call it GM-CSF, which stands for granulocyte macrophage-colony stimulating factor.

An injectable form of GM-CSF has been used to treat people with cystic fibrosis and a condition called neutropenia, in which the white blood count is very low, Dr. Shams said. Though GM-CSF has been tested for safety, it has not been used in spray form to treat influenza.

The UTHSCT research team is currently working with the NIH on possible clinical trials of a spray form of GM-CSF, Dr. Shams said. The UTHSCT team’s initial research involved mice that produce large amounts of GM-CSF in their lungs, he said.

Surviving deadly doses of the flu
“We infected the mice with very lethal doses of three different strains of flu virus. They proved to be ‘super-mice.’ They resisted the flu,” Dr. Shams said.

When the team repeated the experiment – giving the animals GM-CSF and then exposing them to lethal doses of the flu – they survived.

Besides Dr. Shams – the lead investigator – current UTHSCT faculty members Timothy Allen, MD; Peter F. Barnes, MD; and Dr. Idell contributed to the journal article. UTHSCT postdoctoral fellows Fang-Fang Huang, Ph.D., and Yan Feng, Ph.D., also were part of the research team, as was former UTHSCT faculty member Zissis C. Chroneos, Ph.D.

In addition, Ruben Donis, Ph.D., of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta; Daniel R. Perez, Ph.D., of the VA-MD Regional College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Maryland, College Park, Md.; Jeffrey A. Whitsett, MD, of Cincinnati Children’s Hospital in Cincinnati, Ohio; and Kyri Dunussi-Joannopoulos, MD, Ph.D., of Pfizer Research in Cambridge, Mass., contributed to the article.

For more than 60 years, The University of Texas Health Science Center at Tyler has provided excellent patient care and cutting-edge treatment, specializing in pulmonary disease, cancer, heart disease, primary care, and the disciplines that support them. UTHSCT’s annual operating budget of $125 million represents a major economic impact of over $287 million to the Northeast Texas region. In FY 2010, scientists in the Center for Biomedical Research were awarded 75 competitive grants and contracts totaling more than $14 million. As the academic medical center for Northeast Texas, its graduate medical education program – with residencies in family medicine and occupational medicine – provide doctors for many communities throughout the region and beyond.

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