Immune system response changes according to oxygen concentration in the body

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Posted February 15, 2017

Despite rapid advancements in medical science, our own immune system is still the main weapon against infections. Improving it and maintaining it strong is extremely important and scientists are trying to get to know it better. Now a new study from University of Edinburgh revealed that oxygen levels in the body can change the way immune cells behave.

Oxygen level in the body can change the way immune system responds to bacterial infections. Image credit: mcfarlandmo via Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Scientists say that this information could help them develop a new therapy, targeting the immune response to infection. Eventually, it could boost the effectiveness of antibiotics. As usual in researches like this, scientists used animal models to test their hypothesis. They noticed that immune system of mice react very differently to infections depending on oxygen levels in their body. For example, if oxygen levels in the organism are low, immune system launches a vast overreaction, which does not only clear the infection out of the system, but also causes a fatal illness. This is very interesting, because on one hand immune system is more active, but on the other – it is uncontrollable.

Experiments revealed that low oxygen levels before the infection happen can actually be beneficial. Scientists noticed that exposure to low oxygen levels enable the body to protect itself from the illness while still fighting off bacteria. The mechanism is not entirely clear, but it must have something to do with energy consumption in the cells of the body. Oxygen is basically how cells get their energy and changes in the levels of it are always going to change the way how cells are using this energy. In other words, cells reprogram their response in accordance to the oxygen they are getting.

Of course, at first scientists will have to see if human cells behave in the same way. It is likely that this phenomenon can be observed at least in the majority of mammals. Scientists will then try to improve this mechanism of oxygen to try and improve immune response to various infections. Dr Sarah Walmsley, one of the authors of the study, said: “We are excited by our observation that oxygen levels can regulate immune cell responses to infection. Targeting these pathways could have the potential to improve outcomes from infections where oxygen is limited”.

However, it is important to remember that this is only the beginning. It will take years till scientists will find a way to use this information to create actual clinical therapies. But then tackling infections should be easier, even at the advent of antibiotic resistant bacteria.


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