A Natural Killer That Can Help Flu Outbreak

Natural killer T cells reduce lung injury in severe flu infections

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) Fear of a flu epidemic is a constant concern for scientists and researchers. A new study may help reduce those fears thanks to a “natural killer.”

Lung injury occurs at the end of a severe flu infection, ultimately leading to death. Researchers have isolated “natural killer T cells,” which the immune system produces, that can help ease lung injury and thereby reducing deaths from flu.

"Ask your doctor about available flu treatments."

The flu study was led by Ling-Pei Ho, MD, PhD, from the Medical Research Council, Human Immunology Unit at Oxford University. Researchers injected three groups of mice with the H1N1 strain of flu to isolate the effects of natural killer T cells.

One group contained mice who were only injected with H1N1, the second group of mice had no natural killer T cells and the third group featured activated natural killer T cells. The study helped researchers understand how the immune system reacts to severe flu infection.

Natural killer T cells are a white blood cell produced by the immune system and can target numerous sources of infection. While they play an important role in the immune system, high levels of natural killer T cells have been linked to asthma.

The researchers discovered that the group of mice with no natural killer T cells fared the worst among the three groups while the mice with activated natural killer T cells fared the best. It was discovered that a high level of monocytes, another group of white blood cells, led to the lung injury found at the end of a severe flu infection.

The lung injury caused by the increased level of monocytes was close to the damage caused by Spanish flu and swine flu.

Natural killer T cells, according to researchers, help suppress the monocyte level in the lungs. By reducing the monocyte level, the amount of lung damage is reduced. Lung injury is a particular concern for the researchers as it can lead to death in younger individuals who are otherwise healthy.

Flu season is not just about shots, as the flu is a serious concern for people worldwide. A serious flu outbreak can lead to widespread death. Bird flu and swine flu are but just two recent examples of how a flu outbreak can affect people across the globe. Future research can use these findings, in addition to yearly flu shots, to possibly reduce the effect of the flu season.

No funding information was provided. No author conflicts were reported.

This study was published in the March edition of Journal of Leukocyte Biology.

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Review Date: 
March 2, 2012
Last Updated:
October 8, 2012