Our immune system is akin to a turbo-charged hybrid car, claim scientists

3 Apr 2013

Scientists at Trinity College Dublin (TCD) involved in a study of how the immune system works believe they have uncovered more insights into the process of metabolism, which could pave the way for new treatments for diseases such as sepsis and Type 2 diabetes.

A team led by Prof Luke O’Neill from the School of Biochemistry and Immunology in the Trinity Biomedical Sciences Institute has discovered that during an infection, immune cells switch their ‘engine’ from the more sedate ‘battery’ power to using the equivalent of petrol to supercharge the engine needed to fight the infection.

The scientists’ work has just been published in the journal Nature.


During the process of metabolism, the immune system burns food for energy and uses the products to make molecules to energise and keep the body healthy, as well as defending it at a time of infection.

Much research has been done in this area, but according to O’Neill, this latest research defines the process of metabolism in great detail.
“Importantly, we have found that a product of this metabolic change called succinate feeds back to the system and leads to further stimulation, in a manner akin to turbo-charging from an engine’s exhaust,” said O’Neill.

He said this is the part of the process that could lead to new therapies for diseases where the immune system is out of control.

“Such loss of control happens in overwhelming infection as occurs in sepsis, or in diseases such as Type 2 diabetes or rheumatoid arthritis. We think this system is in overdrive in these diseases,” added O’Neill.

The observation was made because of work into Type 2 diabetes, where glucose levels rise and stimulate macrophages to become inflamed, promoting resistance to insulin.

“We have managed to demonstrate protection from death in sepsis by interfering with this process with a drug, giving us hope that our work might have potential for the prevention of death during bacterial infections,” said Dr Gillian Tannahill, first author of the study.

The research was funded largely by the European Research Council and Science Foundation Ireland. It involved collaborations between 10 centres, including Harvard University, MIT, Massachusetts General Hospital, Cornell University, University of California, University of Sheffield and Duquesne University. The research also involved scientists in the Beatson Institute of Cancer Research in Glasgow and from University College Dublin.
Image of virus versus the immune system via Shutterstock

Carmel Doyle was a long-time reporter with Silicon Republic