Research lays the groundwork for future treatments for patients with sepsis

Sep. 27, 2012

 Bryan Yipp, MD and Bjoern Petri, PhD(Calgary, Alberta) September 27, 2012… Alberta Innovates – Health Solutions researchers have made an important discovery about how immune cells combat severe infections that can lead to the development of sepsis. Bryan Yipp, MD, PhD, and Bjoern Petri, PhD, have recently been published in Nature Medicine, a prestigious journal, for their work on NETs (neutrophil extracellular traps).

Neutrophils are a type of white blood cell that digest microorganisms such as bacteria. When an infection becomes very severe, the body defends itself with neutrophils that make a “net” to catch the bacteria. It’s a very efficient way to trap a lot of bacteria. NETs are made of DNA, which come from the nuclei of the neutrophils. However, the neutrophils lose their nuclei to make the NETs, and still retain their ability to find and digest bacteria. “They are still alive, even though they don’t have nuclei,” says Dr. Yipp. “We did not expect this result.”

This ground breaking work will assist pioneers in this area, such as Paul Kubes, PhD, who supervises Dr. Yipp and collaborates with Bjoern Petri. In follow up work, Kubes has gone on to show that neutrophils can make NETs in blood, and that they require platelets (a component of blood that is key to clotting) to stimulate them to release the NETs. Kubes says “The platelets function as a sort of barometer. You don’t want this kind of last-ditch response with the NETs for a minor infection because it’s very toxic. It will not only kill bacteria, but host cells too. Understanding how this process is regulated opens up the possibility of manipulating it in septic patients to enhance survival.”

With this understanding, Drs. Yipp and Petri hope that these newly discovered NETs pathways may be a way to improve immune defense against bacteria and limit sepsis occurrence. Sepsis is a condition where the body fights a severe infection that is spread through the bloodstream. Sepsis can lead to the failure of the lungs, kidney, liver, and heart. It is a costly and burdensome disease, costing the healthcare system more $37,000 per patient to treat and weeks of recovery time. Sepsis is the leading cause of death in the intensive care unit, responsible for the deaths of 1,400 people worldwide every day.

This work is funded by Alberta Innovates – Health Solutions. Both Bryan Yipp, MD, PhD and Bjoern Petri, PhD, are researchers in the Snyder Institute for Chronic Diseases in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Calgary.

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