Discovery of bat protein may help fight inflammatory diseases in humans

Scientists at Duke-NUS Medical School have made an intriguing discovery by studying the remarkable ability of bats to host viruses without suffering severe illness. They have identified a protein that could potentially unlock novel strategies for combating inflammatory diseases in humans.

The fact that bats could be a reservoir for the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which caused the COVID-19 pandemic, has attracted much attention. However, the unique ability of bats to endure viral infections without falling ill could have a positive impact on human health if researchers can understand and harness the mechanisms underlying this phenomenon.

The research centers on inflammasomes, which are complexes of multiple proteins that contribute to excessive inflammation, leading to severe symptoms in various diseases. Inflammasomes also play a role in age-related functional decline.

The Duke-NUS team has discovered that a bat protein known as ASC2 has a potent ability to suppress inflammasomes, thereby restraining inflammation.

According to Dr. Matae Ahn, the lead author and co-corresponding author of the study, who is an Adjunct Research Fellow with the EID Program and the SingHealth Duke-NUS Medicine Academic Clinical Program, “This suggests that the high-level activity of ASC2 is a key mechanism by which bats keep inflammation under control, with implications for their long lifespan and unique status as a reservoir for viruses.” Dr. Ahn is also a full-time clinician in SingHealth’s Postgraduate Year One (PGY1) Residency Program following her graduation from Duke-NUS in 2022.

Co-first author of the study and an MD-Ph.D. candidate in Duke-NUS, Vivian Chen, emphasized that the team has demonstrated the potential of utilizing the bat protein’s powers in humans. The researchers achieved this by proving that the protein was effective in mice as well. Chen explained that “Expression of the bat protein in genetically-modified mice dampened inflammation and reduced the severity of the diseases driven by various triggers, including viruses.”

Upon scrutinizing the ASC2 protein, the researchers identified four amino acids in the molecule that played a crucial role in making the bat protein more potent in suppressing inflammation than its corresponding human protein. This finding offers valuable insights for the development of drugs that can mimic the anti-inflammatory effect of the bat protein.

The next phase for the Duke-NUS research team is to explore the therapeutic potential of their findings in treating human diseases. Professor Wang is optimistic about the future, stating that “We have filed patents based on this work and are exploring commercial partnerships for drug discovery. We are hoping to develop a new class of anti-inflammatory drugs for inflammasome-driven human diseases.”

Professor Wang is also convinced that it is time to concentrate on the more promising aspects of bat biology to confront future human diseases effectively.

Professor Patrick Casey, Senior Vice-Dean for Research at Duke-NUS, praised the study, emphasizing the importance of basic scientific research in tackling significant public health challenges. He said, “Even as COVID-19 fades from public attention, Professor Wang and his team continue to forge ahead with their fundamental research on bat biology, yielding novel insights that could potentially enhance global pandemic preparedness. This study exemplifies the immense value that basic scientific research brings to the table in resolving significant public health issues.”

Source: Duke-NUS Medical School

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