MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 26, 2016

Scientists identify protein that could minimize flu pandemics

Scientists from Melbourne's Walter and Eliza Hall Institute recently announced that a protein called SOCS4 shows the ability to serve as a handbrake to the immune system's runaway reaction to flu infection, which could lead to a way of minimizing flu pandemics.

Without the SOCS4 protein, the immune response in humans to influenza infection is slowed while there is a subsequent large increase in the number of damaging inflammatory molecules in the lungs. Such a flood, called a "cytokine storm," is believed to contribute to flu-related deaths in humans.

Institute researchers first identified cytokine signaling suppressor molecules that control the flow of chemical messages inside cells in the 1990s. Cytokines are released by immune cells to trigger an immune response to protect the body from infection, but SOCS proteins will suppress such activity if too many cytokines are released to prevent unwanted inflammation and tissue damage.

"We showed that, following influenza infection, the immune system did not respond as quickly as expected, and initially sent key immune cells to the wrong location in the body," Lukasz Kedzierski, one of the scientists who worked on the project, said about removing SOCS4. "In addition, inflammatory cytokines began to accumulate in the lungs, leading to a cytokine storm that causes significant damage to the tissue."

Drugs that enhance or mimic the SOCS4 action could lead to a way to treat pandemic or more aggressive flu strains, as well as other infections.

"Knowing the target and function of SOCS4 may lead to us being able to control inflammation in severe cases of the flu or to the development of new, preventive therapies," Sandra Nicholson, another of the project's researchers, said. "Our research so far is very promising and we have some strong leads to pursue in finding out exactly how this molecule works."