Day 248. Wheezing babies

In April 2013 on April 18, 2013 at 8:59 pm


Have you ever had the pleasure of sitting in a hospital emergency room with a wheezing baby?

It’s an experience you’ll never forget.

Of course you’re stressed to the eyeballs about your child, but also thoroughly amazed at the way the place operates and how the staff manage to juggle crisis after crisis.

But back to the wheezing kid.

A respiratory virus can spell trouble for very small airways. Counter to our normal understanding of immunology, prior infection with some viruses in kids does very little to boost their protection. Antibodies raised against the virus, which would normally help clear the infection, are low even in second and subsequent infections. So they struggle with the same bug over and over again.

A new study published in the free online journal PNAS explores why this may be the case.

Working in neonatal mice infected with a respiratory virus, the researchers found that it’s not that newborns can’t raise an immune response. It’s just that their system is skewed in a different direction. Yes, antibody responses are low. But other types are immune responses, the co-called Type 1 responses, are robust. And these Type 1 responses end up interfering with the production of antibodies against the virus.

The authors of the study hope that this knowledge will help drive the design of better vaccines against respiratory viruses that infect babies and toddlers. Interestingly, they also comment

“We have not succeeded in our attempts to determine how general our observations are”.

In other words, they haven’t explored whether antibody responses against other viruses are also lower in newborns compared to adults.

I was interested from a personal perspective, having found in my previous life as a researcher that antibody responses against a component of the malaria parasite are also lower in children than in adults.

I wonder if it’s the same mechanism driving similar responses to different bugs?

[image thanks to Joe Shlabotnik on flickr]


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