It seems that what you don't know just might hurt you when it comes to your immune system. Dr. Janko Nikolich-Zugich, immunobiologist at the University of Arizona and investigator with the BIO5 Institute, has been studying the effects of cytomegalovirus (CMV) on the human immune system's ability to combat other viruses such as West Nile or the flu as we get older. His research suggests that a person infected with CMV has a diminished immune response compared to an uninfected person. The elderly in particular show a compromised immune response and even turn out to have a lower life expectancy.
According to the CDC, cytomegalovirus is part of the herpesvirus family, along with chickenpox , herpes simplex, and mononucleosis. The difference is that CMV generally has been thought to have little or no effect upon the human body. A CMV infection can be easily overlooked or confused with the common cold because of its similar symptoms. If noticed at all, its symptoms are: fever, sore throat, fatigue, and swollen glands. This means you might be infected right now and not even know it. In fact, CMV is so prevalent among adults over the age of 40 that an estimated 50-80% would test positive for the virus.
|(courtesy of department of immunology)|
“The eventual goal is to extend lifespan and health-span by several decades. No one wants to just live longer, they also want to live well and be healthy and productive—we call that health-span—and research already has shown that this is possible in animal models.”
Specifically, Nikolich-Zugich is studying why the immune response decreases as we age. His lab research is "performed in the context of the relationship between immune system and microorganisms (acute and persistent pathogens and normal flora) over the lifespan of the organism, with particular emphasis upon the age-related defects in immunity and defects in long-term homeostasis of the immune system."
|(Courtesy of Medical Express)|
In the research article Immune Senescence: Relative Contributions of Age and Cytomegalovirus Infection Through his mouse study, the research study, the Nikolich-Zugich Lab tested the immune function of old mice with with and without long term CMV infections. The study found that the CMV infected mice were more likley to become infected with other infections. Moreover, the "virus-specific T cell response is suppressed." This means the CMV virus occupies more T cell time as we age, and the immune system has to work harder and harder to keep the virus in check. With more of the immune system responding to CMV, less T cells are available to fight new infections and the ones that are available can be damaged. The cost of this extra effort is a faster break down of the immune system as we age.
"The ongoing presence of CMV contributes to the defects of the aged immune system, helping to explain why older adults often are more prone to infectious diseases than young people. Future studies will allow us to understand the effect of persisting CMV infections on immune responses, which particularly is important for the efficiency of vaccination strategies."
|(Courtesy of BIOS 5 Institiute)|
Janko Nikolich-Zugich, MD, PhD is a Professor and Chair of the Department of Immunobiology at the University of Arizona. He is also Co-Director, Arizona Center on Aging, and both a member and board member of the BIO5 Institute. BIO5 is set up to facilitate research between basic science, agriculture, medicine, pharmacy, and engineering at the University of Arizona, as well as to help move new discoveries from the lab into the marketplace. The physical facility is 177,000 sf, houses more than 350 researchers, and was built at a cost of $61.5M.
The NIH announced this summer that a major study of aging and immune response to infection headed by Nikolich-Zugich has received funding in the amount of $11.8M. Read the UA news release here.
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