Bats unaffected as carriers for deadly diseases

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Bat immune systems and the ebola virusResearchers have now discovered the exceptional ability that allows some bats to act as carriers for deadly diseases, while staying unaffected themselves. CSIRO hopes the study could lead to protection for humans from some of the worlds deadliest diseases.

A new study by the CSIRO, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal, posits that bats’ immune systems remain on at all times—unlike human ones. Scientists studied the Australian black flying fox, examining their genes and immune system, in an attempt to discover how bats, as hosts for over 100 different viruses remained healthy. Many of the diseases carried by bats are known to be lethal and range across Ebola, Hendra and Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome.

The paper came across some very surprising results says Dr Michelle Baker, leading bat immunologist at CSIRO’s Australian Animal Health Laboratory.

“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 defence mechanism known as innate immunity.”

“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.

“Interestingly we have shown that bats only have three interferons which is only a fraction—about a quarter—of the number of interferons we find in people.

“This is surprising given bats have this unique ability to control viral infections that are lethal in people, and yet they can do this with a lower number of interferons.”

CSIRO’s team worked to compare alpha and beta interferons uncovering that bats’ immune systems maintained a heightened sensitivity, even when not infected.

“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,” said Dr Baker. “In other mammalian species, having the immune response constantly switched on is dangerous—for example 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.”

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