Bats offer new clues to immunity

Burnet Institute

23 February, 2016

Burnet Institute’s Associate Professor Gilda Tachedjian has played a key role in novel research, which has uncovered a unique ability in bats to carry lethal diseases but remain unaffected by them.

Unlike humans, bats keep their immune systems switched on 24/7, and scientists believe this could hold the key to protecting people from deadly diseases like Ebola.

“Bats are an important reservoir for viruses such as Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), Ebola and Hendra that are deadly to humans,” Associate Professor Tachedjian said.

“However, not much is known about why bats can harbour these viruses without showing clinical signs of disease.

“This study, led by CSIRO’s Michelle Baker, shows that an important arm of the immune system is always switched on in bats that could provide a critical defence against viral disease.

“Studying how bats successfully deal with deadly viruses is important because it could lead to strategies to allow us to redirect the immune response and prevent disease in humans."

Published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), the new research examines the genes and immune system of the Australian black flying fox, with surprising results.

“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 Baker, a bat immunologist at CSIRO’s Australian Animal Health Laboratory, said.

“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.”

The research showed that bats have only three interferons which is only about a quarter of the number of interferons found in humans.

The team compared two type 1 interferons, alpha and beta, and found that 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 defence against diseases,” Dr Baker said.

“In other mammalian species, having the immune response constantly switched on is dangerous. It’s toxic to tissue and cells, whereas the bat immune system operates in harmony.”

“If we can redirect other species’ immune responses to behave in a similar manner to that of bats, then the high death rate associated with diseases, such as Ebola, could be a thing of the past.”

This work builds on previous research undertaken by CSIRO and its partners to better understand bat immunity to help protect Australia and its people from exotic and emerging infectious diseases.

To download the research paper, click here.

Led by CSIRO, this international research effort included expertise from CSIRO, Duke-National University of Singapore Graduate Medical School and Burnet Institute.

Contact Details

For more information in relation to this news article, please contact:

Professor Gilda Tachedjian

Head of Life Sciences; Head of Tachedjian Laboratory (Retroviral Biology and Antivirals)




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