University of Melbourne health sciences researchers discover crucial pathway to fight gut infection

An international team of researchers, led by the University of Melbourne, have found a crucial pathway for defending the human gut against infection.

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The researchers found virulent E.coli bacteria blocked a pathway that would normally protect the gut from infection. These infections are particularly serious in young children and can result in diarrhea and other complications such as kidney damage.

The role of this pathway in fighting gut infection was previously unknown but defects in it are associated with inflammatory bowel disease.

The research, published recently in Nature, provides much-needed insight into how the gut fights infection.

Lead author Professor Elizabeth Hartland from the University of Melbourne’s Department of Microbiology and Immunology said the research improved their understanding of what happens when this pathway doesn’t work as well as it should.

“This research provides a model where we can look at how these bacteria switch off a critical pathway in our body that helps fight infection and contributes to normal intestinal function,” she said, adding that using this fundamental knowledge, they will be able to conduct further studies and work toward improving therapies and treatments for people with inflammatory bowel disease, which affects approximately five million people worldwide.

The researchers found the diarrhea-causing bacteria use a needle-like structure to inject a toxin into the gut cell that blocks cell death. This allows the bacteria to survive and spread in the gut, causing a range of diseases.

The injected toxin paralyses the infected cell’s ability to send messages to immune cells which would normally sense and eliminate dangerous microbes from the body as well as alert the broader immune system to mount a response to the infection.

“This is a significant contribution to global research in this field as the role of this pathway in intestinal defence and the way bacteria go about blocking this pathway was not known,” the Melbourne professor said.


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