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La Jolla Scientists Find New Way To Fight E. Coli Poisoning

Researchers at the La Jolla Institute for Allergy and Immunology have found a molecule that helps protect the intestines and lungs against disease-causing bacteria like pneumococcus and E. Coli.

Aired 7/17/12 on KPBS News.

Researchers at the La Jolla Institute for Allergy and Immunology have found a molecule that helps protect the intestines and lungs against disease-causing bacteria like pneumococcus and E. Coli.

Mitchell Kronenberg, La Jolla Institute for Allergy and Immunology’s president and chief scientific officer.
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Above: Mitchell Kronenberg, La Jolla Institute for Allergy and Immunology’s president and chief scientific officer.

The molecule, known as herpesvirus entry mediator, or HVEM, is actually used by the herpes virus to penetrate cells on the surface of the intestines and lungs, said Mitchell Kronenberg, the La Jolla institute’s president and chief scientific officer, who led the research team. The cells that line the surfaces of these organs are attacked first when bacteria invade the body.

Kronenberg said HVEM sense when bacteria are present and alert the cells on the organs’ surfaces to prepare for an attack.

“What they do when they sense these invasive bacteria is they call in the specialists, the white blood cells, that really are adept at defending, as well as making defense proteins themselves,” he said.

In his team’s research, Kronenberg used two different bacteria: the strain of E. Coli that killed at least 29 people in Europe last summer and pneumococcus, the bacteria that causes pneumonia. Although E. Coli infected the intestines and pneumococcus infected the lungs, he said the HVEM molecule responded in the same way.

HVEM was previously underappreciated, Kronenberg said, but his team’s findings show its vital role in both the intestines and the lungs. He said its similar response in both organs was somewhat unexpected.

“We expected it enough to try it out in the lab, but a lot of things you try in the lab don’t work,” he said. “We were pleased it worked in a similar in both sites, which increases the impact and importance of what you’re finding.”

Kronenberg said going forward, scientists could use HVEM to make antibodies or vaccines to fight against outbreaks of diseases like E. Coli.

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