Research Beat: UConn Health researchers make steps to understanding cytokine storms

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Cytokines are certain kinds of proteins useful in intercellular communication. They help signal when the body needs to start an immune response to a threat. A cell that detects an immune threat inside itself will trigger enzymes that cause the cell to explode, which releases cytokines and other molecules called alarmins into the bloodstream. The effects of cytokine storms are pertinent to the current COVID-19 pandemic as well. Some patients with severe COVID-19 may experience lethal cytokine storms in response to the virus. Photo courtesy of Nalim Mangalmurti and Christopher A. Hunter, “Cytokine Storms: Understanding COVID-19”.

Researchers at the University of Connecticut Health School of Medicine have made progress in understanding cytokine storms, a medical phenomenon in which the body’s reaction to an immune threat can cause potentially lethal damage to vital tissues and organs.  

The team was led by researchers at Vijay Rathinam’s laboratory at UConn Health, with assistance from researchers from the Consejo Nacional de Investigaciones Científicas y Técnicas in Argentina, the Jena University Hospital in Germany and the University of Florida.  

Cytokines are certain kinds of proteins useful in intercellular communication. They help signal when the body needs to start an immune response to a threat. A cell that detects an immune threat inside itself will trigger enzymes that cause the cell to explode, which releases cytokines and other molecules called alarmins into the bloodstream.  

Cytokine storms occur when too many cytokines are released at once, which trigger an overly aggressive immune response which may damage tissue in the body. This can cause acute sepsis, which kills 270,000 people a year in the U.S. In this case, it’s the body’s reaction to an immune threat rather than the threat itself that kills the patient.  

Researchers at UConn wanted to study which alarmins were released in cytokine storms. They found Galectin-1, a protein which appeared to be suppressing a brake on inflammation. This caused the cytokine storms to worsen in turn.  

The Jena University Hospital researchers found higher levels of Galectin-1 in patients experiencing sepsis than in non-sepsis patients and healthy people. The researchers also found that mice with less Galectin-1 experienced less inflammation and organ damage.  

Medical historians believe cytokine storms have played the progression of influenza, specifically in the flu pandemic of 1918. Cytokine storms are thought to have worsened the prognosis of those diagnosed with the flu. It’s also thought that cytokine storms played a role in deaths caused by the Black Death.  

The effects of cytokine storms are pertinent to the current COVID-19 pandemic as well. Some patients with severe COVID-19 may experience lethal cytokine storms in response to the virus.  

This research means health professionals may have a way to detect cytokine storms as they are occurring. It also provides a potential drug target for dealing with cytokine storms. This research brings the medical community one step closer to understanding and creating a better treatment for cytokine storms. 

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