‘Inflammation thermostat’ could aid immune system

New technology could help regulate inflammation in the body so that it aids the immune system without causing organ damage.

Inflammation is needed when the body is hurt to bring cells and proteins to the site of injured tissue to fight bacteria and the products they produce. But sometimes it can cause further damage and trigger a self-sustaining cycle of more inflammation.

Researchers from the University of Pittsburgh in the US have developed an external device known as a bioreactor that effectively cleans the blood with an anti-inflammatory protein to limit the amount of inflammation to just the right amount.

‘In sepsis, for example, the inflammatory response evolves almost too quickly, but the available treatment strategies aim to prevent inflammation entirely,’ said Prof Yoram Vodovotz from Pittsburgh’s McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine.

‘A better approach would be to turn down the response when it’s too strong, yet still have appropriate inflammation signalling to promote tissue repair.’

Vodovotz and his team loaded a small bioreactor with human liver cells engineered to continuously make a protein called sTNFR that binds to and reduces the protein that causes inflammation, TNF-α.

The researchers tested the device by pumping blood from a rat experiencing inflammation through an intravenous line to the bioreactor, exposing the blood to the engineered cells.

‘This bio-hybrid device acts as a kind of inflammation thermostat,’ said Vodovotz. ‘By loading it with cells that produce different amounts of sTNFR, or other inflammatory blockers, we may soon be able to tailor our interventions to carefully balance inflammation and immune responses based on the patient’s medical situation.’

Vodovotz’s group is also creating computer models of inflammation that could be used to engineer the next generation of this device. It hopes a portable device could be created to take onto battlefields and improve wounded soldiers’ chances against sepsis.