Bats are able to carry lethal diseases without being affected by them, reveals a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). This special ability of theirs might potentially be used to combat diseases affecting humans, say the researchers.
Maybe, that explains part of why vampires do not get sick.
The unique ability of bats to be immune to pathogens they carry has been documented for the first time by scientists. The latter are hopeful that we could exploit this knowledge to protect humans from diseases like Ebola.
Bats are amazing creatures indeed: their immune system remains switched on throughout the day and night unlike humans. Furthermore, they are the natural host of over 100 viruses including lethal ones like the ones behind Ebola, and Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome (MERS). How do they remain protected when the pathogen is inside their bodies?
The focus of the study was on the innate immunity of the Australian black flying fox; this form of immunity is naturally present as a defence mechanism, and triggers a number of responses when a pathogen is detected in the body. The researchers looked into a particular set of proteins involved in innate immunity responses known as interferons. It was discovered that bats have only 3 interferons — a number that is well below that of humans. This is deemed surprising because bats otherwise have a special ability to keep viral infections under control while the same pathogens would be lethal to humans. How do they do this with a lower number of interferons?
When investigating the matter, the researchers found that bats would express an enhanced innate immune response regardless of being infected or not — their innate immunity was heightened even when no detectable virus was detected to have infected them. Their interferon-alpha (which is a form of the protein) is constantly being switched on and remains a “24/7 front line defence” against infections. On the other hand, humans and other mammals like mice have their immune system activated only as a response to infection because the 24/7 system would be dangerous to their own tissues and cells.
The researchers explain that tuning the immune system of other species to respond in a similar manner might help combat infectious diseases like Ebola.