A fungus that is killing frogs and other amphibians around the world releases a toxic factor that disables the amphibian immune response, Vanderbilt University investigators report Oct. 18 in the journal Science.
The findings represent "a step forward in understanding a long-standing puzzle -- why the amphibian immune system seems to be so inept at clearing the fungus," said Louise Rollins-Smith, Ph.D., associate professor of Pathology, Microbiology and Immunology.
Although the identity of the toxic fungal factor (or factors) remains a mystery, its ability to inhibit a wide range of cell types -- including cancerous cells -- suggests that it may offer new directions for the development of immunosuppressive or anti-cancer agents.
Amphibian immune response
The populations of amphibian species have been declining worldwide for more than 40 years. In the late 1990s, researchers discovered that an ancient fungus, Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, was causing skin infections, and the fungus is now recognized as a leading contributor to global amphibian decline.
Rollins-Smith, an immunologist, and her colleagues have been studying the immune response to the fungus for more than 10 years. "Amphibians have excellent and complex immune systems -- nearly as complex as humans -- and they should be able to recognize and clear the fungus," she said.
In early studies, the investigators demonstrated that some frogs produce anti-microbial peptides in the skin that offer a first layer of defense against the fungus. But when the fungus gets into the layers of the skin, Rollins-Smith said, the conventional lymphocyte (immune cell)-mediated immune response should be activated to clear it.
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