Scientists hope that bats’ “super immunity” to lethal diseases might hold the key to preventing humans from contracting deadly viruses like Ebola.
Bats are known to be a natural host for more than 100 viruses, some of which are lethal to people, including Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome, Hendra virus and Ebola, however, bats don’t show signs of disease or illness from these viruses.
Research published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has suggested that while bats are constantly working to keep diseases at bay, humans and other mammals only respond once the body encounters a foreign organism.
“Unlike people and mice, who activate their immune systems only in response to infection, the bats interferon-alpha is constantly switched on acting as a 24/7 front line defence against diseases,” said bat immunologist at CSIRO’s Australian Animal Health Laboratory, Dr Michelle Baker.
“In other mammalian species, having the immune response constantly switched on is dangerous – for example it’s toxic to tissue and cells – whereas the bat immune system operates in harmony.”
During their study, researchers compared how interferons – which are integral for innate immune responses in mammals – work in humans and bats to understand what’s special about how bats respond to invading viruses.
They found that the number of interferons present made no difference to a bat’s ability to combat disease, what counted was bats’ tendency to be constantly battling disease, even when they are not infected with any detectable virus.
“Interestingly we have shown that bats only have three interferons which is only a fraction – about a quarter – of the number of interferons we find in people,” said Baker.
“This is surprising given bats have this unique ability to control viral infections that are lethal in people and yet they can do this with a lower number of interferons.”
The researchers hope that the study will demonstrate bats’ worth in helping to protect people from infectious disease.
“If we can redirect other species’ immune responses to behave in a similar manner to that of bats, then the high death rate associated with diseases, such as Ebola, could be a thing of the past,” said Baker.