September 18, 2019 | 57° F

Rutgers research finds parasite that may help emphysema

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William Gause is director of the Center for Immunity and Inflammation and led a study that analyzed how proteins produced in the presence of intestinal worms might help manage emphysema.

Recent Rutgers research has found that a parasite known to cause emphysema may also be an important tool in managing the disease. 

The study published in "Cell Reports" found the protein RELM-alpha, produced by the body in response to an intestinal worm infection, may suppress inflammation associated with activated immune cells that contribute to the development of the disease.

Emphysema involves the gradual damage of lung tissue — the thinning and destruction of the alveoli or air sacs — and includes symptoms, such as difficulty breathing, shortness of breath and chronic coughing, according to MedicinePlus

Cigarette smoking is one of the most common causes of the disease and, as of 2016, approximately 13 out of every 100 adults aged 18-24 smoked cigarettes. There is no current cure for emphysema, but there are treatments that help manage the disease, according to the Center for Disease Control

“When the parasite first enters the lungs, it induces production of the inflammatory cytokine IL-17, which can cause emphysema,” said William Gause, director of the Center for Immunity and Inflammation at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School and lead author of the study, in the press release. “But subsequently the parasite also triggers this specific component of the immune response that can reduce the IL-17 and thereby limit the severity of the emphysema.”

Gause said this is one of many studies analyzing the immune responses these parasites trigger and how they can be used to treat and promote tissue repair and control inflammation, according to the article. Future studies will look at whether direct administration of the protein can reduce the severity of the disease and how harmful inflammation caused by the parasite contributes to emphysema.  

“Harmful inflammation is such a serious problem in disease,” Gause said. “This protein produced by immune cells during parasitic worm infections reveals the complexity of the immune response and indicates how we can unleash beneficial components of our own immune system to control the harmful inflammation that contributes to many chronic diseases.”

Christian Zapata

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