Bat immunity may hold clues for HIV

Insights … immune responses in bats are being studied.
Insights … immune responses in bats are being studied.

A PREVIOUSLY unknown immune response in bats to a deadly fungal disease may hold the key to future treatments of AIDS, world-first research has found.

The condition - called Immune Reconstitution Inflammatory Syndrome - had previously only been identified in patients with HIV-AIDS.

But for the first time US scientists have found it in the animal world, potentially unlocking better insights into the immune response of AIDS patients.

''This discovery could prove significant for studies on treatment for AIDS,'' US Geological Survey director Marcia McNutt said.

The syndrome occurs when the immune system, having been suppressed for a time, starts to recover. This suppression and recovery is typically seen in AIDS patients who have undergone treatment with antiretroviral drugs.

But as the immune systems starts to recover it can then respond to a previously acquired infection with an overwhelming inflammatory response that makes the symptoms worse.

For AIDS patients battling a serious secondary infection, this can be fatal.

Research by the Survey and US National Institutes of Health, published in the international scientific journal Virulence this month, detailed the similar immune response in bats battling with a fungal infection after waking from hibernation.

The fungal infection, known as white-nosed syndrome, has killed more than 5 million cave hibernating bats in North America since 2006.

The survey's lead researcher, Carol Meteyer, said an over-reaction by the bats immune system to the fungus may have something to do with the mass fatalities.

''We see strong similarities between humans IRIS [the syndrome] and the pathology associated with white-nosed syndrome, with potentially fatal outcome in bats,'' Ms Meteyer said.

Martyn French, a Winthrop Professor in Clinical Immunology at the University of Western Australia, said the discovery gave scientists an opportunity to study what happens when inappropriate immune responses are produced.

''By working out what is happening in these hibernating bats it could help us understand what is occurring in people with this condition,'' Professor French said.

''Any kind of development in the understanding of this immune syndrome and its potential treatment would have real benefits for patients suffering from AIDS, especially those in under developed countries where secondary infection is a real problem.''

❏ On Saturday, the NSW Health Minister, Jillian Skinner, launched a new HIV strategy to cut infection rates and improve access to treatment and testing. It includes developing after-hours and weekend testing, providing same-day results and greater use of SMS and email testing reminders.

Up to 4800 people in NSW are believed to have HIV without knowing it.

This story Bat immunity may hold clues for HIV first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.