A new discovery by researchers at Imperial College London could lead to treatments that turn off inflammation in the lungs caused by influenza and other infections.
The symptoms of influenza, such as breathlessness, weight loss and fever, become worse if the immune system responds in an exaggerated way to the virus, rather than by the virus itself.
The virus is often cleared from the body by the time symptoms appear and yet symptoms can last for many days, because the immune system continues to fight the damaged lung.
The immune system is necessary for clearing the virus, but it can cause a lot of damage to the body when it overreacts and if it is not quickly contained.
Such overreaction takes place in a number of diseases as well as influenza, such as asthma and inflammatory conditions in the gut.
During influenza infection, the immune system's prolonged response causes the lungs to become inflamed and this can clog the airways and cause difficulty breathing.
In the new study, researchers show how the activity of immune cells in the lung is normally kept under control by a receptor known as CD200R, working with another molecule called CD200.
CD200R is found in high levels in the lungs and the new study shows that it is able to limit the immune system's response and to turn off inflammation once it has started.
Influenza overrides the CD200 molecule and without CD200 to bind to, CD200R cannot work to prevent the immune system from overreacting, so the lungs become inflamed.
For the study, the researchers gave mice infected with influenza a mimic of CD200, or an antibody to stimulate CD200R, to see if these would enable CD200R to bring the immune system under control and reduce inflammation.
They found that the mice that received treatment had less weight loss than control mice and less inflammation in their airways and lung tissue.
The influenza virus was still cleared from the lungs within seven days and so this strategy did not appear to affect the immune system's ability to fight the virus itself.
In wake of these results, the researchers hope that a therapy could be developed for people, which can quickly work with the CD200R receptor and stop the immune system from fighting when it is no longer needed.
According to them, this would quickly reduce symptoms and reduce the damage that the immune system causes in the lungs and elsewhere.
"The immune system is very sophisticated and much of the time it does a fantastic job of fighting infection, but it has the ability to cause a lot of damage when it overreacts," Nature quoted Professor Tracy Hussell, the lead author of the research from the National Heart and Lung Institute at Imperial College London, as saying.
"Our new research is still in its early stages, but these findings suggest that it could be possible to prevent the immune system going into overdrive, and limit the unnecessary damage this can cause," she added.
The study is published in the journal Nature Immunology.