Long-lived bats offer clues on diseases, aging

Fri Dec 21, 2012 5:17am EST
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By Tan Ee Lyn

HONG KONG (Reuters) - The bat, a reservoir for viruses like Ebola, SARS and Nipah, has for decades stumped scientists trying to figure out how it is immune to many deadly bugs but a recent study into its genes may finally shed some light, scientists said on Friday.

Studying the DNA of two distant bat species, the scientists discovered how genes dealing with the bats' immune system had undergone the most rapid change.

This may explain why they are relatively free of disease and live exceptionally long lives compared with other mammals of similar size, such as the rat, said Professor Lin-Fa Wang, an infectious disease expert at the Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School in Singapore who led the multi-centre study.

"We are not saying bats never get sick or never get infections. What we are saying is they handle infections a lot better," Wang said in a telephone interview.

What was missing from both species of bats was a gene segment known to trigger extreme, and potentially fatal, immune reactions to infections, called the cytokine storm.

Cytokine storms end up killing not only offending viruses in the body, but the host's own cells and tissues too.

"Viruses rarely kill the host. The killing comes from the host's immune response. So it looks like what bats are doing is depress the inflammation (cytokine storm). If we can learn that, we can design drugs to minimize the inflammation damage and control viral infection," Wang said.

The study, which saw the participation of researchers from China, Denmark, Australia and the United States, was published on Friday in the journal Science.   Continued...