Study reveals link between parasite and impairment of airway function

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The results of a multinational collaboration, involving Salford and universities in China and the USA, could be significant in developing treatment options for sufferers of lung diseases such as cystic fibrosis.

Professor Geoff Hide, from the School of Environment & Life Sciences, has been leading the University’s contribution to the Toxoplasma gondii parasite study, which is published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, of the USA (PNAS).

The research shows that there is a link between infection with the Toxoplasma gondii parasite and the production of the fluid lining surrounding the airways.

Geoff, who has been working with a team from Sun Yat-Sen University, in Guangzhou, led by Salford Visiting Professor Zhao-Rong Lun, and Professor Francisco J Ayala, from the University of California, said: “Our lungs and airways are key parts of the body that are vulnerable to incoming infection by airborne pathogens. The cells that line these air passages, the airway epithelia, are key barriers and they prevent infection by maintaining a lining of fluid covering the airways.”

In diseases such as cystic fibrosis, however, this fluid is incorrectly produced and individuals suffer infections and airway blockage. The parasite that the researchers have been studying can cause severe lung disease in newborn babies, children and people with a poorly functioning immune system, including AIDS sufferers and transplant patients.

The research team have shown that the parasite causes biochemical changes to these airway cells, in a very similar way to that caused by cystic fibrosis, and this mechanism may be responsible for the airway damage caused by the parasite.

“This is a very important finding as this parasite is thought to infect around 10 per cent of people in the UK and 30 per cent of people globally,” said Geoff.

“While the parasite normally does not affect us, in some cases, for example, during pregnancy or illnesses involving the immune system, it can cause considerable harm, including impairment of lung function”.

“Understanding how the parasite does this may help us to develop treatments, not just for the effects of this parasite, but perhaps other lung diseases as well.”

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