Flying in the face of reason: How bats could be the cure, not the cause, of deadly diseases
Feb 26, 2016 | News
Australian scientists have discovered a heightened immune system in bats which could help protect humans from killer diseases like Ebola, Hendra and SARS.
Dr Michelle Baker, a leading bat immunologist at CSIRO's Australian Animal Health Laboratory, is among an international team of researchers who examined the genetic make-up of black flying foxes.
The team discovered that the bats keep their immune systems constantly switched on and can carry more than 100 viruses - some lethal to humans - without ever getting sick.
Dr Baker said: "Whenever our body encounters a foreign organism, like bacteria or a virus, a complicated set of immune responses are set in motion, one of which is the defence mechanism known as innate immunity.
"We focused on the innate immunity of bats, in particular the role of interferons - which are integral for innate immune responses in mammals - to understand what's special about how bats respond to invading viruses.”
The research showed that bats express a heightened innate immune response even when they are not infected with any detectable virus.
"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," Dr Baker said.
"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."
Viral diseases that spread from animals to people – known as zoonotic viruses – are highly unpredictable in terms of emergence, host range and speed of spread.
Several major disease outbreaks over the past two decades have originated in bat populations, including Hendra, Nipah, Ebola, Marburg, Melaka and SARS.
Led by CSIRO, the research team includes scientists from Duke-NUS Medical School and the Burnet Institute.