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Bacteria-killing proteins cover blood type blind spot
Date:2/14/2010

A set of proteins found in our intestines can recognize and kill bacteria that have human blood type molecules on their surfaces, scientists at Emory University School of Medicine have discovered.

The results were published online Feb. 14 and are scheduled to appear in the journal Nature Medicine.

Many immune cells have receptors that respond to molecules on the surfaces of bacteria, but these proteins are different because they recognize structures found on our own cells, says senior author Richard D. Cummings, PhD, professor and chair of the Department of Biochemistry. "It's like having a platoon in an army whose sole purpose is to track down enemy soldiers that are wearing the home country's uniforms."

Blood type comes from differences in sugar molecules attached to proteins on red blood cells. If incompatible blood types are mixed, the antibodies from one person will make red blood cells from the other person clump together, with devastating results in an emergency. But someone's immune system usually doesn't make antibodies to the sugar molecules on his or her own red blood cells. That creates a potential blind spot that bacteria could exploit.

For example, a strain of E. coli (O86) has molecules on its surface like those in humans with blood type B. People with blood type B are unable to produce antibodies against E. coli O86. Although O86 is known to infect birds, it's not a major danger like other types of E. coli, some of which can cause severe diarrhea.

Cummings and his colleagues wanted to know why more bacteria haven't adopted the tactics of E. coli O86 to get around the immune system. Searching for proteins that could bind to the sugar molecules characteristic of blood types A and B, graduate students Sean Stowell, PhD, and Connie Arthur identified proteins called galectin-4 and galectin-8.

"These proteins are separate from antibodies and other parts of the immune system," Cummings says.
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Contact: Holly Korschun
hkorsch@emory.edu
404-727-3990
Emory University
Source:Eurekalert

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