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February 2011 Issue

Frank McCormack, MD
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Research Reveals Mechanisms That Help Body Defend Against Inhaled Pathogens

By Katie Pence
Published February 2011

New research co-led by scientists at the University of Cincinnati and Boston University recently identified the mechanisms that allow certain proteins to bind to sugars in the body to produce a defense mechanism against inhaled pathogens, such as the bacteria and viruses that cause common forms of pneumonia.

This discovery could lead to therapies against certain airborne illnesses. Frank McCormack, MD, chief of the division of pulmonary, critical care and sleep medicine and UC Health pulmonologist, was a co-author on the study that was published recently in the Journal of Biological Chemistry.

McCormack says researchers found that surfactant protein A (SP-A) plays a role in defending the lung by binding to sugars on the surface of microbes, leading to clearance of the organism from the airspace.

Surfactant proteins are lipoproteins that allow the lungs to stretch and function.

"This study was the first to directly show the mechanisms by which amino acids on the protein bind to individual saccharides on the sugar,” he says, noting that this was done by crystallizing the protein and sugar together at the same time and then studying the reaction of the structure.

"There were big shifts in the loops on the surface of the protein when this binding occurred.”

McCormack says that while there’s not yet a timeline for patient therapies, this discovery is the first step in understanding how these interactions can be recreated and treatments can eventually be formed.

"As we understand how the protein recognizes sugars, we can make alterations or mutations to the protein’s structure that might improve its host defense actions,” he says. "We are in the process of doing some of those experiments now.”

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