There are 18 million cases of septic shock each year, causing 500,000 deaths. But there is no effective treatment to this overloading of the body’s immune response.
“Our treatment in mice demonstrated a beneficial effect and has been patented. Now we need a commercial partner to further develop the concept,” says Kristian Jones, a post-doctoral fellow at the Monash Institute of Medical Research in Melbourne, Australia and one of this year's Fresh Scientists.
Kristian is one of sixteen young researchers selected from across Australia in the national competition Fresh Science. One of the Fresh Scientists will win a study tour to the UK courtesy of the British Council and have the opportunity to present their work at the Royal Institution.
“Interestingly, Monash researchers including David de Kretser AC (now Governor of Victoria), discovered follistatin in 1990. But it was thought that it was just a reproductive protein.”
“We’ve now discovered that follistatin also plays an important role in controlling inflammation,” says Jones.
Septic shock is caused by the spread of an infection to the whole body forcing the body’s normal inflammatory response to go into overdrive.
"A few years ago we found that another protein, activin, is produced by the body in response to inflammation," says Jones. "It is thought to help stimulate inflammation. In mice we found that follistatin was also being released and was binding to activin and neutralising it. When we gave the mice more follistatin it increased their chance of surviving sepsis."
"We believe that the follistatin moderated the activin and dampened the inflammatory response," says Jones.
Septic shock is the leading cause of mortality after heart disease in intensive care units, costing billions of dollars in healthcare costs every year. These findings raise hopes of using follistatin to save lives.
The human body is under a persistent threat from infections but it has adapted to deal with this threat. Normally the body uses its defence or immune system together with inflammation to control infection.
Sometimes an infection escapes the defence system and quickly spreads to a number of organs and the blood stream resulting in septic shock. This is now a very serious infection and the body needs to react strongly to control it. Sometimes the body quickly over-reacts, throwing its all at the infection, and damaging itself.
It is this uncontrolled inflammatory response in septic shock that can lead to vital organs being damaged and in many cases death.
"As well as looking for commercial partners, we are further exploring how follistatin interacts with activin," says Jones. "We’ve already found that patients with sepsis also have high levels of activin and follistatin. If follistatin’s role in managing inflammation is confirmed, it could assist with rheumatoid arthritis, asthma and other inflammatory diseases."
Niall Byrne | alfa
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