The human body has many natural defenses built in, including inflammation. When inflammation occurs, the irritated area usually swells, reddens, and becomes sore and tender. This process allows the body not only to protect itself from further harm, but also to heal itself.
Beyond what the eye can see, this is simply how the body protects itself from invading microbes, while at the same time removes damaged tissues. “Macrophages,” large white blood cells that belong to the immune system, play a very important role in the inflammatory process. In recent times, scientists have studied microphages further to confirm their vital role, such that macrophage dysfunction is revealed to contribute to poorly inflamed and poorly healing wounds.
Macrophages already play a key role in inflammation, but researchers from Trinity College Dublin discovered how they also produce itaconate, an anti-inflammatory molecule. As such, scientists are looking at ways itaconate can possible treat chronic inflammation.
The Trinity researchers investigated metabolic changes in microphages for years, but one of their latest findings revealed something even more valuable than all their previous research. Using both human cells and mice models, these scientists found a metabolic process that essentially turns off inflammation.
The team found that under certain circumstances, these macrophages can turn glucose into itaconate, which works by targeting a variety of proteins, stopping the inflammatory response overall.
Trinity’s Luke O’Neill, a professor of Biochemistry, explained how it works. “It is well known that macrophages cause inflammation, but we have just found that they can be coaxed to make a biochemical called itaconate,” he said. “This functions as an important brake, or off-switch, on the macrophage, cooling the heat of inflammation in a process never before described.”
Lead author Dr. Evanna Mills furthered, “The macrophage takes the nutrient glucose, whose day job it is to provide energy, and surprisingly turns it into itaconate. This then blocks production of inflammatory factors, and also protects mice from the lethal inflammation that can occur during infection.”
Why This “Off Switch” Is So Relevant
Professor O’Neill’s team has been exploring these changes in macrophages for about six years, in collaboration with GlaxoSmithKline, Harvard Medical School, Johns Hopkins University, the University of Cambridge, the University of Dundee, and the University of Oxford. He says this opportunity opened pathways that will keep them “busy for some time” but they push on because they hope to “one day make a difference to patients with diseases that remain difficult to treat.”
There are two kinds of inflammation, namely acute (or short term) inflammation, and chronic (or long term) inflammation.
Inflammation is linked to many chronic diseases such as psoriasis, heart disease, diabetes, and metabolic syndrome, among others. Inflammation can have adverse effects to the joints, and can have severe effects to the brain including blood flow issues and cognitive decline, as well as the creation of damaging proteins that are linked to Alzheimer’s.
Chronic inflammation may lead to a number of health conditions, many of which people suffer from without any true cure, or they can only achieve a partial sense of relief using nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). This research is so vital because inflammation has many dangers including too much NSAID use.
When used in moderation, NSAIDs are a big help as they work quite well, are relatively inexpensive (most even have generic versions), and general have a good safety profile. As they are available over the counter (except for higher doses that need prescriptions), NSAIDs are easy to obtain. Common over the counter NSAIDs include aspirin, naproxen (Aleve, Naprosyn), and ibuprofen (Advil, Midol, Motrin).
However, they do have certain downsides, including ulcers, heartburn, and stomach upset. Additional risks include bleeding and bruising, kidney injury, and certain mild allergic reactions like rashes. Severe allergic reactions and liver injury due to NSAIDs should not be taken lightly, though.
Fortunately, there are other ways to get rid of inflammation without taking medicine. Consuming more anti-inflammatory foods such as olive oil, tomatoes, nuts, fatty fish, fruit, and green leafy vegetables really help, so be sure to eat a generally healthy diet that includes these types of nutritious foods.
A good eating plan that is rich in anti-inflammatory foods is the Mediterranean diet – high in veggies, fruits, nuts, fish, healthy oils, and whole grains. Spices like turmeric, ginger, garlic, cinnamon, cayenne, cloves, and black peppers are all great sources. Cannabis, which contains cannabichromene, also has anti-inflammatory properties.
Although NSAIDs, cannabis, and these aforementioned dietary solutions are of great help, they do not get rid of the problem completely. This research done by the team of Professor O’Neill, Dr. Evanna, and their colleagues may hold the key to a true solution for inflammation.