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Immune System Focus of UNM Study

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Researchers seeking better treatments for tuberculosis have long focused on finding ways to ramp up the body’s immune system.

New research at the University of New Mexico now suggests that the body also needs the ability to dial down an overheated immune response, which can help the TB bacteria ravage the lungs.

The research could one day lead to treatments for TB and other illnesses, such as HIV/AIDS, Alzheimer’s and Crohn’s disease, that use the body’s own immune response to spread disease, the study’s co-authors said Thursday.

“You have to have a regulated immune response, otherwise you do get these diseases,” said Eliseo Castillo, a post-doctoral fellow in UNM’s molecular genetics and biology department.

TB is a deadly bacterial illness that kills about 1.5 million people a year worldwide, according to the World Health Organization. Incidence of the disease is increasing, in part because of the prevalence of HIV/AIDS, which weakens the immune system.

In 2011, UNM received a $1 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to search for drugs that can stimulate the cell’s ability to rid itself of disease-causing viruses and bacteria.

That ongoing study is intended to test every drug approved for use in humans to find compounds that may one day result in treatments for HIV and other diseases, said Vojo Deretic, chairman of UNM’s molecular genetics and microbiology department.

Central to the UNM research is a self-cleaning process in cells called autophagy, Greek for “self-eating.”

Autophagy uses specialized organs within cells that act like vacuum cleaners, devouring and recycling bits of trash and attacking harmful microbes, Deretic said.

For years, researchers have studied autophagy as a way of destroying viruses and bacteria, he said.

But new research with mice at UNM found that autophagy also plays a role in suppressing inflammation, which over time can damage the body and open a pathway to disease, said Deretic and Castillo, co-authors of the study.

The study, published Nov. 13 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, offers the first evidence that the cell’s self-cleaning mechanism both kills harmful microbes and helps regulate the body’s immune response, they said.

The study also suggests that TB may behave like an autoimmune disease by overstimulating the body’s immune response.

— This article appeared on page C1 of the Albuquerque Journal