Happy mid-January! As we all get accustomed to writing “2023” on important documents, scientists continue to ask the big questions. Could a genome-wide study of man’s best friend help scientists understand atopic dermatitis in humans? What does the gut have to do with MS, a disease of the brain and central nervous system? Could bacteria help us with our dependence on palm oil? Are we any closer to a universal influenza vaccine?
Researchers have served up answers to some of these questions in the past week, and we’re bringing them to you in this week’s news round-up.
Genes Connected to Canine Eczema Found on Dog Genome
“Man’s best friend” has been providing humans with protection and companionship for tens of thousands of years. Could they now help us understand atopic dermatitis? Genetic researchers seem to think so.
Dog genetics researchers in Sweden have reported that they have discovered parts of the canine genome that are related to the development of eczema in dogs. As in humans, these genes are closely related to innate immunity and skin barrier. One of the most striking similarities was found on the filaggrin gene, mutations on which predispose dogs to a greater risk of developing eczema.
The scientists involved in the study hope that this will allow us to understand eczema better in dogs and humans alike.
Common Fatty Acid Implicated in Pain and Temperature in Psoriasis Patients
Researchers at North Carolina State University have found a connection between a common fatty acid and psoriatic plaques–what’s more, it is connected to increased sensitivity to both pain and temperature.
Linoleic acid is commonly found in vegetable and nut oils, and some of its metabolites are important to the maintenance of the skin’s barrier function. Scientists found that active psoriasis lesions contained high levels of two of the lipids produced by the breakdown of linoleic acid. Upon closer examination, they discovered that these lipids could bind with sensory receptors–specifically, pain and temperature receptors.
They were surprised to find that the elevated lipid levels did not correspond to greater sensitivity to itch, the most commonly reported psoriasis symptom.
Santosh Mishra, an associate professor of neuroscience at North Carolina State University, says that the exact mechanism by which these fatty acids bind with receptors has not yet been discovered. However, Mishra hopes that the discovery will lead to more insight into how fatty acids influence sensory receptors.
“We…know what protein the lipids are binding to, but not where the bond occurs,” Mishra says. “Answering these questions may hopefully lead to new therapies – or dietary solutions – for some psoriasis sufferers.”
Gut Biome Differences Associated With Multiple Sclerosis
Nearly three million people worldwide suffer from multiple sclerosis, an autoimmune disease of the brain and central nervous system. For poorly understood reasons, their immune system attacks the myelin sheath of neurons in the brain and/or spinal cord, causing problems ranging from numbness to blindness.
A study conducted at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark has uncovered a difference in the gut biomes of those with MS and without, as well as differences between MS patients with active disease and those in remission.
Two beneficial species of bacteria, which are connected to a reduction of immune system overactivity, were found in the bowel biome of people without active disease–these bacteria were not found in the bowels of those with active MS flares.
Some of these bacteria produce urolithin, a fatty acid that the human body cannot produce itself.
Professor Oluf Borbye Pedersen from the University of Copenhagen, the senior author of the article, says that the study’s findings might one day lead to preventative diets or treatments. “If the observations can be confirmed in independent studies,” Pedersen says, “the next step will be to initiate treatment trials, for example with an anti-inflammatory, green diet and a cocktail of next-generation probiotics, which also regulate the immune competence, but are not yet on the market.
However, Pedersen warns that there is still not enough evidence to support the development of supplements or to recommend a specific diet, saying that there is “still some way to go” before any firm recommendations can be made about diet or supplementation.
New Companies Look to Bacteria For an Alternative to Palm Oil
Palm oil is nearly ubiquitous in the Western diet. It is found in baked goods, confections, and snacks such as chips. It is a multi-purpose oil with a long shelf life, and it can be produced relatively cheaply.
The environmental costs of palm oil, though, are exorbitant; it has led to massive deforestation, which has led to habitat loss for several rare species. Palm oil plantations have driven down orangutan populations, with some watch groups calling it the number one threat to the species.
The search for an inexpensive alternative has generated a revived interest in harvesting lipids from microbes. As National Geographic reports this week, this is not a new idea; spurred by the butter shortages caused by World War I, German researchers found that certain strains of yeast could produce lipids. The research ground to a halt with the end of the war and a return of butter.
In 2022, however, more than one business started with the goal of producing and marketing microbial oils as an alternative to palm oil. Microbes are abundant, after all, and the equipment needed is minimal and inexpensive.
While many different variables affect the growth of oleaginous microbes (microbes that produce oils) and the extraction of the oils, this resurgence of interest might be the springboard we need to end our reliance upon the versatile palm oil.
“Multiplex” of mRNA From Different Influenza Strains Brings Science Closer to Universal Flu Vaccine
Every year, it’s the same story–go to the doctor, request an influenza vaccine, and hope that it will actually work against the most common strains. In spite of readily-available vaccines, the flu continues to overwhelm hospitals every year; it also claims hundreds of thousands of lives worldwide. Vaccine developers are on a constant quest for the Holy Grail, a single vaccine that provides immunity to all strains and variations.
There are currently 20 different known influenza subtypes, and each one has multiple variants. Each variant has unique proteins on its surface called hemagglutinin antigens (HA) that allow it to bind with host cells; late last year, researchers combined nucleoside-modified (mRNA) lipid nanoparticles from 20 different flu variants into one vaccine. In mice and ferret studies, the vaccine provided “robust” immunity–even against variants that weren’t included in the vaccine.
The “multiplex” was even effective for mice with T-cell deficiencies. Most of the immunized mice remained asymptomatic regardless of the strain they were challenged with, and few of the symptomatic infections led to mortality in the immunized mice. When “challenged” with exposure to H1N1,100% of the non-immunized mice died.
Conventional vaccines rely upon active or inactive viral cells; the “multiplex” in this study was created instead from mRNA nanoparticles. According to last week’s article in Science on the study, the mRNA vaccine would be cheaper and sturdier than conventional vaccines.
While this isn’t the universal Holy Grail, science is definitely getting warmer!
That’s it for this week, folks. Stay warm and happy until next week, when we bring you another batch of health and science news.