Creative Minds: Does Human Immunity Change with the Seasons?

Micaela Martinez

Micaela Martinez

It’s an inescapable conclusion from the book of Ecclesiastes that’s become part of popular culture thanks to folk legends Pete Seeger and The Byrds: “To everything (turn, turn, turn), there is a season.” That’s certainly true of viral outbreaks, from the flu-causing influenza virus peaking each year in the winter to polio outbreaks often rising in the summer. What fascinates Micaela Martinez is, while those seasonal patterns of infection have been recognized for decades, nobody really knows why they occur.

Martinez, an infectious disease ecologist at Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, thinks colder weather conditions and the tendency for humans to stay together indoors in winter surely play a role. But she also thinks an important part of the answer might be found in a place most hadn’t thought to look: seasonal changes in the human immune system. Martinez recently received an NIH Director’s 2016 Early Independence Award to explore fluctuations in the body’s biological rhythms over the course of the year and their potential influence on our health.

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Rare Disease Mystery: Nodding Syndrome May Be Linked to Parasitic Worm

Rural Uganda village gathering

Caption: Village in the East Africa nation of Uganda
Credit: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

In the early 1960s, reports began to surface that some children living in remote villages in East Africa were suffering mysterious episodes of “head nodding.” The condition, now named nodding syndrome, is recognized as a rare and devastating form of epilepsy. There were hints that the syndrome might be caused by a parasitic worm called Onchocerca volvulus, which is transmitted through the bites of blackflies. But no one had been able to tie the parasitic infection directly to the nodding heads.

Now, NIH researchers and their international colleagues think they’ve found the missing link. The human immune system turns out to be a central player. After analyzing blood and cerebrospinal fluid of kids with nodding syndrome, they detected a particular antibody at unusually high levels [1]. Further studies suggest the immune system ramps up production of that antibody to fight off the parasite. The trouble is those antibodies also react against a protein in healthy brain tissue, apparently leading to progressive cognitive dysfunction, neurological deterioration, head nodding, and potentially life-threatening seizures.

The findings, published in Science Translational Medicine, have important implications for the treatment and prevention of not only nodding syndrome, but perhaps other autoimmune-related forms of epilepsy. As people in the United States and around the globe today observe the 10th anniversary of international Rare Disease Day, this work provides yet another example of how rare disease research can shed light on more common diseases and fundamental aspects of human biology.

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Birth Year Predicts Bird Flu Risk

Incidence of Avian Flu vs. Year of Birth

Caption: Birth years of people in China who contracted H7N9 avian flu from 1997-2015 (left); birth years of people in Cambodia, China, Egypt, Indonesia, Thailand, and Vietnam who contracted H5N1 avian flu from 1997-2015 (right).
Source: Adapted from Science. 2016 Nov 11;354(6313):722-726.

You probably can’t remember the first time you came down with the flu as a kid. But new evidence indicates that the human immune system never forgets its first encounters with an influenza virus, possibly even using that immunological “memory” to protect against future infections by novel strains of avian influenza, or bird flu.

In a study that looked at cases of bird flu in six countries in Asia and the Middle East between 1997 and 2015, an NIH-supported research team found that people born before 1968 were at lower risk of becoming seriously ill or dying from the H5N1 strain of the bird flu virus than were those born afterwards [1]. Just the opposite was true of another emerging strain of bird flu. People born before 1968 were at greater risk of becoming seriously ill or dying of H7N9, while those born after that date were more often protected.

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Simplifying HIV Treatment: A Surprising New Lead

CD4+ cells in the gut

Caption: PET/CT imaging reveals a surprisingly high concentration (yellow, light green) of key immune cells called CD4 T cells in the colon (left) of an SIV-infected animal that received antibody infusions along with antiviral treatment. Fewer immune cells were found in the small intestine (right), while the liver (lower left) shows a high level of non-specific signal (orange).
Credit: Byrareddy et al., Science (2016).

The surprising results of an animal study are raising hopes for a far simpler treatment regimen for people infected with the AIDS-causing human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Currently, HIV-infected individuals can live a near normal life span if, every day, they take a complex combination of drugs called antiretroviral therapy (ART). The bad news is if they stop ART, the small amounts of HIV that still lurk in their bodies can bounce back and infect key immune cells, called CD4 T cells, resulting in life-threatening suppression of their immune systems.

Now, a study of rhesus macaques infected with a close relative of HIV, the simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV), suggests there might be a new therapeutic option that works by a mechanism that has researchers both excited and baffled [1]. By teaming ART with a designer antibody used to treat people with severe bowel disease, NIH-funded researchers report that they have been able to keep SIV in check in macaques for at least two years after ART is stopped. More research is needed to figure out exactly how the new strategy works, and whether it would also work for humans infected with HIV. However, the findings suggest there may be a way to achieve lasting remission from HIV without the risks, costs, and inconvenience associated with a daily regimen of drugs.

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Creative Minds: Making a Miniature Colon in the Lab

Gut on a Chip

Caption: Top down view of gut tissue monolayer grown on an engineered scaffold, which guides the cells into organized crypts structures similar to the conformation of crypts in the human colon. Areas between the circles represent the flat lumenal surface.
Credit: Nancy Allbritton, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

When Nancy Allbritton was a child in Marksville, LA, she designed and built her own rabbit hutches. She also once took apart an old TV set to investigate the cathode ray tube inside before turning the wooden frame that housed the TV into a bookcase, which, by the way, she still has. Allbritton’s natural curiosity for how things work later inspired her to earn advanced degrees in medicine, medical engineering, and medical physics, while also honing her skills in cell biology and analytical chemistry.

Now, Allbritton applies her wide-ranging research background to design cutting-edge technologies in her lab at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. In one of her boldest challenges yet, supported by a 2015 NIH Director’s Transformative Research Award, Allbritton and a multidisciplinary team of collaborators have set out to engineer a functional model of a large intestine, or colon, on a microfabricated chip about the size of a dime.

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