Why do people with cystic fibrosis (CF) have such trouble with lung infections? The conventional view is that people with CF are at greater risk for lung infections because thick, sticky mucus builds up in their lungs, allowing bacteria to thrive. CF is caused by a mutation that affects the composition of the mucus.
Rabindra Tirouvanziam, an immunologist at Emory, says a better question is: what type of cell is supposed to be fighting the bacteria?
The answer is neutrophils, one of the most abundant types of immune cells and foot soldiers against bacterial infections. When neutrophils get into the lungs in people with CF, they change behavior and shut off the expression of genes that would be important for them to combat bacteria. They stay around in the lungs, and release harmful proteins that interfere with other cells’ ability to clean up the bacteria.
Tirouvanziam’s lab has developed a culture system for studying neutrophil behavior, a model for how they act in the lungs. The system makes the neutrophils pass through a layer of lung epithelial cells. Under the influence of lung fluids obtained from CF patients, neutrophils turn what Tirouvanziam calls GRIM (Granule Release, Immunomodulatory, Metabolic). They’re feeding but not fighting: highly metabolically active, but not producing the molecules needed for bactericidal activity.
In a recent paper published in Cell Reports Medicine, researchers show that they can reverse the GRIM fate by applying alpha-amanitin, which blocks RNA transcription, and bring back bactericidal activity. This is a sledgehammer approach, because alpha-amanitin shuts down everything – it’s the toxic ingredient in destroying angel/death cap mushrooms.
Thus, alpha-amanitin would not be appropriate as a therapeutic medication. But it is a tantalizing hint of more specific approaches to come – related papers are on the way, Tirovanziam says. Reviving the anti-bacterial ability of neutrophils should be applicable regardless of the pathogen, and independent of antibiotic resistance, he adds.
“We can steer them in the right direction,” he says. “We are starting to realize that neutrophils have multiple programs and pathways – sort of like T cells. And we can show that it is being exposed to CF lung fluid that makes them go wrong – it’s not intrinsic to the neutrophils.”
The paper also says that scientists in his lab have been separating lung fluids from CF patients into fractions, in order to isolate the molecular entities responsible for steering neutrophils down the wrong path.
The first author of the Cell Reports Medicine paper was former graduate student Camila Margaroli, currently a postdoc at UAB. Tirouvanziam’s lab is part of Emory’s Department of Pediatrics and the Emory-Children’s Healthcare Center for Cystic Fibrosis and Airways Disease Research.