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FAU researchers investigate how sepsis occurs

blood cells (Bild: Colourbox)

Immunological research on sepsis could increase chances of survival

Sepsis, sometimes referred to as blood poisoning, occurs as a result of an excessive immune response to an infection caused by bacteria, viruses or fungi. The immune system is unable to stop or control the inflammation. This excessive response puts patients at risk of multiple organ failure and septic shock, which leads to death in 40 to 60 percent of cases. A team of researchers led by FAU medical researcher PD Dr. Georg Weber is now researching the immunological mechanisms of sepsis in a project that is being funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG) with 370,000 euros. New findings in this area could allow new therapies to be developed that could treat the condition more effectively and in a more targeted manner.

The DFG project is building on important previous research by PD Dr. Georg Weber (Oberarzt), a senior physician at the Department of Surgery at Universitätsklinikum Erlangen, on the function of interleukin 3 (IL-3) during acute inflammatory response. During sepsis IL-3, a messenger substance produced by the human body that is involved in the development of new bone marrow cells and white blood cells, is mainly produced by the recently discovered innate response activator (IRA) B cells. In collaboration with a team of researchers at Massachusetts General Hospitals/Harvard Medical School, Boston, USA, Georg Weber discovered the important role of interleukin 3 during sepsis.

‘Elevated IL-3 levels during the acute phase of sepsis are a crucial factor that contributes to the occurrence of septic shock,’ he explains. ‘If there is too much IL-3, too many defence cells are produced. If an infection occurs, these defence cells are activated and too many cytokines – other messenger substances that increase the immune response further – are produced. This leads to a dreaded cytokine storm, which makes septic shock and subsequent multiple organ failure more likely.’ Georg Weber was able to show that high levels of IL-3 in the blood correlate with a significantly increased risk of death as a result of sepsis.

However, research on sepsis is still in its early stages. In the new project, which is being funded by the DFG for a period of three years with 370,000 euros, Georg Weber and his team aim to find the answers to some of the questions that remain unanswered. They are investigating the molecular mechanisms of IL-3 production in IRA B cells and how IL-3 affects the course of the immune response during sepsis. Essentially, what they aim to find out is why sepsis occurs, which endogenous and exogenous mechanisms play a crucial role in the occurrence of sepsis, and why the immune system reacts differently to infection in different patients. Once these essential elements of sepsis are understood, it should be possible to develop new approaches in immunotherapy.

‘Sepsis is an interdisciplinary concern that surgeons, urologists, gynaecologists, internists and paediatricians are confronted by equally. For this reason, it is crucial that we apply our research to clinical practice and that we collaborate with colleagues from other disciplines,’ Georg Weber says.

Sepsis is one of the most common causes of death worldwide and costs healthcare systems millions of euros. More and more older people, who often suffer from several diseases at once, are being affected by sepsis. Patients suffering from the conditions – as a result of a kidney or lung infection or complications after surgery, for example – can only be given symptomatic treatment with antibiotics, medication to improve blood flow, administration of sufficient fluids and oxygen. ‘To develop new treatments for sepsis we must find the immunological balance when treating infections and inflammatory response in order to increase the chances of survival. However, it is equally important to strengthen the immune system of patients with immunodeficiency.’

Further information:

PD Dr. Georg Weber
Phone: +49 9131 8532962