Helminths release anti-microbial peptide-like molecules that are immunomodulatory

Posted by Kasra

In this paper, the authors have studied peptides that are found secreted by helminths Schistosoma mansonai and Fasciola hepatica and closely resemble mammalian antimicrobial peptidescathelidins to be precise.

First, the backgrounds: S. mansonai and F. hepatica are both trematodes or flukes. Their cyst form can be ingested via contaminated food or water and in the gut they hatch and can migrate to the liver. Like many other parasites, they don’t kill but cause morbidity. They are categorized as neglected tropical diseases and their infections are treatable and obviously preventable.

Anti-microbial peptides are very diverse in sequence and functions among different organisms, but there are similarities in their secondary and tertiary structures. They are produced by many multicellular organisms and their activities can range from bacteriocidal to immune modulatory. Some peptides can have both functions simultaneously,

Thivierge et al. start their paper by an interesting notion: the similarity of the innate immune response to helminths with the immune response to wounds and tissue injury. They are both anti-inflammatory and pro-Th2. Skewing the immune response from Th1 to Th2 and thus leading to less pathology as well as parasite chronicity is a recurring theme in parasite immunology. Read a full review here.

The peptides studied in this paper have similar secondary structure to alpha helical mammalian antimicrobial peptides (Cathelicidins) such as LL-37 and BMAP-28. A feature of these peptides is presence of amphi-pathic helices (hydrophobic on one side and hydrophilic on another side). This was also seen in the predicted secondary structures of peptides that were found to be secreted from S. mansonai and F. hepatica. 

Following this, the authors studied the peptides for a variety of anti-microbial and toxicity activities that are seen with mammalian peptides and found none to be present even at high doses (things such as pore formation, . However, what they did find was the peptides’ ability to modulate functions of immune cells. In this particular case they report inhibition of TNF secretion by macrophages and alteration of antibody secretion by B cells.

Similar secondary structure among mammalian and helminth peptides. (A) shows mammalian peptides with hydrophilic areas marked green and hydrophobic areas marked red. The dotted line and arrows in (B) show hydrophobic patches in the helmnith peptides. From Thivierge et al. 2013. PLoS Negl Trop Dis 7(7): e2307. doi:10.1371/journal.pntd.0002307

What the authors argue from their results is that the similar structure of these peptides to mammalian peptides and yet lack of toxicity allows them to effectively manipulate the immune response in their favor. These modulations could help in blunting of a strong Th1 response with lots of damage to the parasite as well as the host tissue and a milder response leading to parasite chronicity. Knocked-out parasites will better show the extent of importance of these peptides. Nontheless, longterm co-evolution of host and parasites has given rise to these peptides: they are nontoxic and modulatory at least in vitro.  This means plenty of potential in biotech and pharmaceutics!

Thivierge K, Cotton S, Schaefer DA, Riggs MW, To J, Lund ME, Robinson MW, Dalton JP, & Donnelly SM (2013). Cathelicidin-like Helminth Defence Molecules (HDMs): Absence of Cytotoxic, Anti-microbial and Anti-protozoan Activities Imply a Specific Adaptation to Immune Modulation. PLoS neglected tropical diseases, 7 (7) PMID: 23875042


Immunology meets epidemiology: A closer look at super spreaders

Posted by Kasra

Recent work by Gopinath et al. published in PLoS Pathogens touches a crucial issue in epidemiology of infectious diseases. We tend to look at infectious diseases as infecting everyone more or less uniformly. But many studies have shown that a great extent of heterogeneity exists in the amount of pathogen that is spread from infected individuals. The common rule is a 80-20 rule: it says that 20% of infected individuals account for 80% of disease spread. To learn more about this phenomenon and the research behind it, you can have a look at this comment published in Nature news and views. This rule appears to stand for many infectious diseases capable of causing epidemics. Therefore, studying and identifying the super spreaders –  or as this study puts them super shedders –  is of critical importance.  This study has tried to shed some light on the differences of the immune system of these individuals compared to normal shedders.

The authors use a special model of Salmonella enterica infection of mice where longterm infection was sustainable without the mice succumbing to disease. They then compared mice that very high numbers of bacteria present in their stool (two logs higher than what is normally expected of moderate shedders) with normally infected mice.

Comparing the immune response between moderate and supper shedders, the authors find that although the bacterial load in the gastrointestinal tract is highly different between the two groups of mice, the amount of bacteria in systemic organs such as the spleen is the same, so is the overall appearance of the mice. However, they find an enhanced innate immune response in the supper shedders marked with higher IL-6, a pro-inflammatory cytokine, in the serum and more neutrophils in the blood and other organs. On the other hand, they observe a reduction in the ratio of Th1 lymphocytes to regulatory T cells. The authors also found Th1 cells to be less responsive to proliferation-inducing cytokine IL-2.

Interestingly, the authors were able to induce some of the super shedder ‘characteristics’ by giving streptomycin to moderate shedder mice, probably giving room for Salmonella to expand in the altered microbiota. This further suggests that the observed immune characteristics are due to the bacterial load present in the gut. Finally, they look at the possible connection between neutrophil expansion and reduction in Th1 responsiveness.

Immunological differences between super shedder and moderate shedder Salmonella infected mice

The authors argue that to the be able to contain such a high bacterial load in the body, the organism would either have a weaker inflammatory response, or a way to dampen adaptive response to reduce the cost of high inflammation to the body. This is among the first steps in understanding the nature of the immune response in super spreaders. It would be interesting to see if this is a general theme in all host-pathogen interactions when super spreading occurs, or if it is different with every pathogen. This kind of research can importantly lead to better understanding of the immune response and hopefully also molecular markers that would help rapid identification the super spreaders and better control of disease outbreaks.

Gopinath S, Hotson A, Johns J, Nolan G, & Monack D (2013). The Systemic Immune State of Super-shedder Mice Is Characterized by a Unique Neutrophil-dependent Blunting of TH1 Responses. PLoS pathogens, 9 (6) PMID: 23754944

Galvani AP, & May RM (2005). Epidemiology: dimensions of superspreading. Nature, 438 (7066), 293-5 PMID: 16292292


A new murine model of Giardia infection: linking pathogenesis to malnutrition

Posted by Kasra

Giardia is a very successful parasite.   It’s highly durable cysts enter the body via contaminated food. Once inside the small intestine, the cysts hatch and the trophozoites start swimming with their multiple flagella. They attach to the intestine’s surface and enjoy the nutrient rich environment of the small intestine.  Shortly after, they start producing cysts that leave the body via feces.  Their presence may or may not cause severe symptoms. In many cases people carrying Giardia in their body – thus shedding cysts –  might not feel anything. On the other hand, Giardia infection can lead to severe diarrhea that could stick around for weeks if untreated. Our immune system usually manages to control the infection and get rid of the parasite. But in any case, the parasite can come, live and go undetected.

Similar to many other parasitic diseases, since Giardia infection does not kill a significant number of its victims, is not rampant in industrialized countries and is more or less readily treatable, it is not funded and studied by many researchers. Unfortunately, despite unique biological features such as lack of mitochondria, presence of two nuclei and an anti-inflammatory host-pathogen interaction, Giardia remains largely understudied.  We don’t fully understand the host and pathogen factors that could lead to disease or just sub-clinical infection. Nor we know much about how Giardia gets detected by the immune system and what is the nature of the immune response that kicks the parasite out of the body.

A scanning electron micrograph of the surface of the small intestine of a gerbil infested with Giardia sp. protozoa. The intestinal epithelial surface is almost entirely obscured by the attached Giardia trophozoites. (Source Wikipedia)

One of the strong incentives for studying Giardia is its higher prevalence in children. Infectious diarrhea is still the most common of cause of child death (Cryptosporidium is another understudied parasite and causative agent of diarrhea in children, which I discussed in another post). A recent study by Bartelt et al. published in Journal of Clinical Investigation, presents a new model of Giardia infection, focusing on malnutrition and young age. They argue that many children in areas where Giardia infection is common are undernourished. This malnutrition could contribute to development of a persistent Giardia infection with severe symptoms rather than a shorter non-symptomatic infection. To study the effect of children malnutrition on Giardia infection, they set their model on 3-week old recently weaned (taken away from mother, eating solid food) mice. They show that although healthy mice are able to clear the infection, Giardia parasites manage to stay longer in the small intestine of malnourished mice and also cause more growth impairment. It can be thought that this is a vicious cycle, where infectious diarrhea causes further weakening of the individual and thus further difficulty in fighting the infection, leading to severe weight loss and persistence of the parasite. Interestingly, the load of parasite in the intestine remains unchanged when comparing healthy and malnurished mice. However, the authors describe their model by pointing to other differences such as immune response and small intestine pathology. More studies on this model can help us better understand and hopefully better treat Giardia infection in children.

Highlight in Nature reviews in Gastroenterology and Hepatology

Bartelt, L., Roche, J., Kolling, G., Bolick, D., Noronha, F., Naylor, C., Hoffman, P., Warren, C., Singer, S., & Guerrant, R. (2013). Persistent G. lamblia impairs growth in a murine malnutrition model Journal of Clinical Investigation, 123 (6), 2672-2684 DOI: 10.1172/JCI67294


Exosomes derived from grapes communicate with intestinal stem cells

Posted by Kasra

I worked on exosomes for some time, so I have written about them and other secreted vesicles every now and then. I still try to follow up the research in the field and get excited with the new findings, methods and applications. Here is exciting work by by Ju et al.  where they study the interaction between grape (yes the fruit) exosomes with mouse intestinal cells.

They purified exosome-like vesicles from grapes that they bought from grocery stores. Given to mice, the exosomes appeared to be absorbed by intestinal stem cells present in the intestinal crypts. Interestingly, the authors show that picking up these vesicles induce the Wnt/β-Catenin pathway. Generally, activation of this pathway promotes proliferation of stem cells. Ju et al. show grape exosomes induce proliferation of stem cells by putting stem cells together with the vesicles ex vivo and looking at crypt formation in organoids. Finally, to provide a health-related application for their vesicles, the authors show that grape exosomes protect mice and delay death in a murine colitis model. This can be because the vesicles induce proliferation of the stem cells and thus enhance tissue regeneration to revert the damage caused by colitis.

Formation of crypts from a single intestinal stem cell ex vivo is quickened when exposed to grape exosomes. From Ju et al. Molecular Therpay 2013

Formation of crypts from a single intestinal stem cell ex vivo is quickened when exposed to grape exosomes. From Ju et al. 11 June 2013;doi: 0.1038/mt.2013.64

This study contains so many buzz-words, I could think of terrible ways by which it can be mis-interpretted by media: grapes heal gut disease, nano-particles in fruit protect against gut disease, … As the authors say in the first paragraphs of the paper, this study is a proof of concept and there is still a lot more to learn. Thankfully, they show enough evidence to tickle other scientists to look at application of plant-derived exosomes and exosome-like vesicles as means for drug delivery and therapy. For one thing, plants-derived products are available in higher abundance compared to their animal-derived counterparts and can be cheaper to purify in commercial quantities.  Also, humans have been exposed to them (maybe not in such high concentrations) for millions of years, so they are no strangers to the gut cells.

Ju S, Mu J, Dokland T, Zhuang X, Wang Q, Jiang H, Xiang X, Deng ZB, Wang B, Zhang L, Roth M, Welti R, Mobley J, Jun Y, Miller D, & Zhang HG (2013). Grape Exosome-like Nanoparticles Induce Intestinal Stem Cells and Protect Mice From DSS-Induced Colitis. Molecular therapy : the journal of the American Society of Gene Therapy PMID: 23752315


Bacteriophages may protect us against pathogens

Posted by Kasra

Given the extremely large amount of bacteria in our gastrointestinal track, it is not surprising to think that the gut would be also swarming with pathogens of bacteria, that is bacteriophages as well. In their recent work published in PNAS, Barr et al. take a look at what impact these particles could have on the population of bacteria in mucosal surfaces and what could it mean for us. Their work actually turns out very interesting results.

Mucosal surfaces are the body’s points of contact  with the outside. Being highly populated with bacteria, they can be suitable points of infection as well. That is why they are heavily guarded with various immune barriers and mechanisms, both innate and adaptive. Barr et al. point to a possible mechanism of protection against infection which not innate nor adaptive. They start by comparing the amounts of bacteria and bacteriophages in different mucosal and non-mucosal surfaces in various mucus producing animals. They interestingly observe that the bacteriophage to bacteria ratio in mucosal sites is way larger than those in adjacent non-mucosal sites (from average about 40fold to average about 3fold). They verify this in both invertebrates and vertebrates and thus suggest that this could be a phenomenon in all mucus-producing metazoans.

Next, they point to a previous recent study by Minot et al. who had found immunoglobulin (Ig)-like domains in the total analyzed genome of human gut viruses (or so called human gut virome).  These domains that usually act as in recognition and binding (as an antibody would do); they show that the bacteriophages actually bind to mucus through these proteins.  Barr et al. also show that presence of bacteriophages on a mucosal surface significantly reduces Escherichia coli invasion in vitro.


Model for how presence of bacteriophage on the mucosal surface can help in protection against bacterial infection. From Barr et al. PNAS 2013 PMID: 23690590

This is an incredible system where the benefit of the bacteriophages and their hosts actually match. It is not clear at this point whether the animal body would have to do something other than producing mucus to keep the bacteriophages where they are or that it is just enjoying this protection more or less free of charge.

Barr JJ, Auro R, Furlan M, Whiteson KL, Erb ML, Pogliano J, Stotland A, Wolkowicz R, Cutting AS, Doran KS, Salamon P, Youle M, & Rohwer F (2013). Bacteriophage adhering to mucus provide a non-host-derived immunity. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America PMID: 23690590

Minot S, Grunberg S, Wu GD, Lewis JD, & Bushman FD (2012). Hypervariable loci in the human gut virome. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 109 (10), 3962-6 PMID: 22355105


Degradation of the intestinal mucus barrier by whipworm

Posted by: Kasra

I wrote recently about modulation of the host by intestinal worm Trichuris muris. Here is another brilliant study looking at the secreted proteins of this nematode and how they interact with the small intestine mucus.

 Hasnain et al. published in PLoS NTD that secreted proteins of T. muris contain serine proteases that are able to degrade the mucus barrier, especially Muc2. Interestingly, they observed that the components of the mucus barrier are different during acute versus chronic infection. When worm expulsion begins in acute infection of T. muris, Muc5a is also detected in the mucus, a protein which is normally not expressed in the intestinal mucus but in the lung. Muc5a is resistant to degradation by serine proteases of the parasite and probably helps in worm expulsion. This specific host response and change in mucus does not happen during chronic infection which results in continued stay of the worm in the intestine.

Secreted Proteins of T. muris degrade the mucus in chronic but not acute infection. This is due to upregulation of Muc5a in acute infection, which is resistant to the proteases. From Hasnain et al. PLoS NTD, doi:10.1371/journal.pntd.0001856.g003

Below is a schematic diagram of the structure of the mucus layer during acute and chronic infection and how Excreted Secreted Proteins (ESPs) of the parasite interact with it.

A schematic of how the mucus layer looks like during acute or chronic infection with T. muris. From Hasnain et al. PLoS NTD doi:10.1371/journal.pntd.0001856.g003

Hasnain SZ, McGuckin MA, Grencis RK, & Thornton DJ (2012). Serine Protease(s) Secreted by the Nematode Trichuris muris Degrade the Mucus Barrier. PLoS neglected tropical diseases, 6 (10) PMID: 23071854


Communication between intestinal commensal bacteria and the host via membrane vesicles

Posted by Kasra

Releasing outer membrane vesicles or OMVs of by bacteria can be considered one of their protein secretion pathways. This pathway is especially important for carrying messages to longer distances than what other mechanisms such as type III secretion system can do.

Although the gut is largely colonized, there is not much of direct cell to cell contact between the microbiota and the host cells due to presence of a thick mucosal layer and other factors. In a recent study, Shen et al. show that bacterial OMVs can make up for this distance and allow for communication between the microbiota and host. They show that orally administered OMVs collected from Bacteroides fragilis can protect mice from chemically induced colitis. Furthermore, they show that this protection is dependent on presence of a capsular polysaccharide (PSA) on the OMV surface. Shen et al. suggest that PSA-containing OMVs are picked up by dendritic cells and induce IL-10 production, thus ameliorating colitis. Specifically, they show that production of IL-10 by DCs is dependent on recognition of PSA by TLR2. Therefore, stimulation of TLR2 by B. fragilis OMVs leads to tolerance instead of inflammation, which is necessary for homeostatic maintenance of the gut.


Top shows B. fragilis releasing OMVs. Bottom shows purified B. fragilis OMVs from wildtype and non-PSA producing strains. From Shen et al. Cell host & Microbe. Oct. 2012

Shen Y, Torchia ML, Lawson GW, Karp CL, Ashwell JD, & Mazmanian SK (2012). Outer membrane vesicles of a human commensal mediate immune regulation and disease protection. Cell host & microbe, 12 (4), 509-20 PMID: 22999859