Nucleic Acid Scavengers: Fighting Inflammation Upstream

Polymers called nucleic acid scavengers (NAS) can be used to seek out and bind to dead-cell debris, limiting the immune system’s pathological response without compromising it.

In inflammatory conditions, such as lupus, the immune system is often mistakenly reacting to nucleic acids (RNA, DNA) being released by dying cells, causing an attack response that causes damage and inflammation. In many previous treatments, the goal has been to dull this immune response to alleviate it painful effects, but in doing so, patients are often more exposed to infection and illness.

Researchers from Duke recently published the results of a study that proposed a more preventative approach to fighting inflammatory diseases. Polymers that they call nucleic acid scavengers (NAS) can be used to seek out and bind to the dead-cell debris, limiting the immune system’s pathological response without compromising it. Rather than fighting the system's response "downstream," the goal is to mitigate the factors before they even illicit that response.

The researchers tested their method in mice afflicted lupus and observed what they called “dramatic therapeutic benefit.” Additionally, the treatment did not negatively impact the mice’s ability to fight off influenza, and in fact increased their survival rate when they were injected with potentially lethal doses of the virus.

Autoimmune diseases are damaging cycles in which a disturbance causes inflammation, which causes even more disturbances and even more inflammation. "Our goal was to break this cycle at its onset,” Eda K. Holl, PhD, lead author of the study, said in a press release. “What we saw in animals with lupus when we used these compounds was a dramatic reduction in inflammation, which gave the body a chance to heal."

The potential benefits of these findings are as novel as they are wide-ranging. Not only could the use of nucleic acid scavengers help break the cycle in those suffering from lupus, the researchers believe they could also be worthwhile in the fight against diabetes or even obesity.