Luxembourg, 6 May 2013 Scientists from the Luxembourg Centre for Systems Biomedicine (LCSB) of the University of Luxembourg have discovered that immune cells in the brain can produce a substance that prevents bacterial growth: namely itaconic acid. Until now, biologists had assumed that only certain fungi produced itaconic acid. A team working with Dr. Karsten Hiller, head of the Metabolomics Group at LCSB, and Dr. Alessandro Michelucci has now shown that even so-called microglial cells in mammals are also capable of producing this acid. "This is a ground breaking result," says Prof. Dr. Rudi Balling, director of LCSB: "It is the first proof of an endogenous antibiotic in the brain." The researchers have now published their results in the prestigious scientific journal PNAS.
Alessandro Michelucci is a cellular biologist, with focus on neurosciences. This is an ideal combination for LCSB with its focus on neurodegenerative diseases, and Parkinson's disease especially i.e. changes in the cells of the human nervous system. "Little is still known about the immune responses of the brain," says Michelucci.
"However, because we suspect there are connections between the immune system and Parkinson's disease, we want to find out what happens in the brain when we trigger an immune response there." For this purpose, Michelucci brought cell cultures of microglial cells, the immune cells in the brain, into contact with specific constituents of bacterial membranes. The microglial cells exhibited a response and produced a cocktail of metabolic products.
This cocktail was subsequently analysed by Karsten Hillers metabolomics group. Upon closer examination, the scientists discovered that production of one substance in particular - itaconic acid - was upregulated. "Itaconic acid plays a central role in the plastics production. Industrial bioreactors use fungi to mass-produce it," says
Hiller: "The realisation that mammalian cells synthesise itaconic acid
University of Luxembourg