Zinc helps against infection by tapping brakes in immune response
Scientists determined in human cell culture and animal studies that a protein lures zinc into key cells that are first-responders against infection. The zinc then interacts with a process that is vital to the fight against infection and by doing so helps balance the immune response. This study revealed for the first time that zinc homes in on this pathway and helps shut it down, effectively ensuring that the immune response does not spiral out of control. The team led by Ohio State University researchers also found that if there is not enough zinc available at the time of infection, the consequences include excessive inflammation. In this research, zinc’s activity was studied in the context of sepsis, a devastating systemic response to infection that is a common cause of death in intensive-care unit patients. But scientists say these findings might also help explain why taking zinc tablets at the start of a common cold appears to help stem the effects of the illness. “We do believe that to some extent, these findings are going to be applicable to other important areas of disease beyond sepsis,” said Daren Knoell, senior author of the study and a professor of pharmacy and internal medicine at Ohio State. “Without zinc on board to begin with, it could increase vulnerability to infection. But our work is focused on what happens once you get an infection – if you are deficient in zinc you are at a disadvantage because your defense system is amplified, and inappropriately so. “The benefit to health is explicit: Zinc is beneficial because it stops the action of a protein, ultimately preventing excess inflammation.” While this study and previous work linking zinc deficiency to inflammation might suggest that supplementation could help very sick ICU patients, it’s still too early to make that leap.
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