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How zinc works to fight deadly infection found for the first time

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
Research uncovers how zinc halts inflammation and stops infection.

Researchers have discovered for the first time how zinc works to help boost immunity to fight potentially deadly infection known as sepsis. When the body is under attack from bacteria or viruses, zinc is the first responder. The essential mineral stops the immune response that can lead to dangerous widespread inflammation and death.

Zinc is important for supporting overall health; interacting with thousands of proteins in complex ways. Until now no one knew exactly how the mineral boost immunity.

Scientists found out a protein coaxes zinc into cells to start a process that balances the immune system. For their study, researchers looked at how the mineral could patients in the intensive care unit diagnoses with sepsis – a widespread infection of the bloodstream that can lead to multi-organ failure and death.

"We do believe that to some extent, these findings are going to be applicable to other important areas of disease beyond sepsis," said Daren Knoell, senior author of the study and a professor of pharmacy and internal medicine at Ohio State in a press release.

"Without zinc on board to begin with, it could increase vulnerability to infection. But our work is focused on what happens once you get an infection – if you are deficient in zinc you are at a disadvantage because your defense system is amplified, and inappropriately so.”

Zinc blocks inflammatory protein to balance immune system

Knoell adds the action of zinc is ‘explicit’ for fighting infection because it stops inflammation by blocking the action of a protein.

The finding also highlights the importance of nutrition for fighting disease. Knoell explains not everyone in the ICU would benefit from zinc, but a proportion might. People who are deficient in zinc are also likely to lack other essential nutrients.

A 2009 study highlighted the role of the mineral for fighting infection and virus and is recommended as a supplement for diarrhea, respiratory infection and for treating malaria in children who are zinc deficient.

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Past studies found zinc is consumed in foods activates immune fighting T-cells, enhancing the activity of a molecule known as ZIP8 that transports the mineral into cells.

In the current study, researchers discovered zinc activates the NF-κB pathway. NF-κB is a highly active protein that is important for immunity.

Once the protein is activated it enters nucleus of the cell, activating ZIP8 that transports the mineral. Zinc then binds to another protein in the pathway to prevent inflammation and cellular damage.

The entire process occurs when a pathogen invades, awakening the immune system’s disease fighting pathway.

"The immune system has to work under very strict balance, and this is a classic example of where more is not always better," Knoell said. "We want a robust inflammatory response, which is part of our natural programming to defend us against a bug. But if that is unchecked, and there is too much inflammation, then it not only attacks the pathogen but can also cause much more collateral damage."

The research is published in the journal Cell Reports.

The researchers say zinc supplementation could be an inexpensive treatment for specific disorders. The scientists are continuing their studies to pinpoint how to use the mineral strategically. Foods that contain zinc include beans, nuts, whole grains, and some shellfish such as oysters, dairy and fortified cereals.

The study is the first to find how zinc works at a cellular level to boost immunity by halting inflammation and damage from potentially deadly infection. Zinc deficiency occurs in approximately two million people worldwide, according to Oregon State University.

Cell Reports
Feb 7, 2013

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