Protein discovery offers sepsis hope

28 January 2016        

Grey body with red heart

Proteins in the blood called histones, which are released from damaged tissue during a septic infection can cause life-threatening heart failure according to new research we funded.

The study carried out at the University of Liverpool was published in the medical journal Critical Care Medicine. This discovery points the way toward a new treatment against the dangerous effects of sepsis

What is sepsis?

Sepsis is a life-threatening condition caused by the body's response to an infection and the toxins produced during it. The condition leads to over 100,000 people being admitted to hospital in the UK each year. Over a third of those people die showing the urgent need for treatments.

While antibiotics can effectively treat the infection, the body's response and toxins released by dead cells or from bacteria can lead to a deadly drop in blood pressure and multiple organ failure.

Building on previous research

Research by the team, which we also funded, previously showed the link between elevated levels of histones and heart damage in people with sepsis. But until this new study it was not clear how histones were harmful to the heart.

The Liverpool team, led by Professor Cheng-Hock Toh and Dr Guozheng Wang, also funded by the MRC and NIHR, has now found in mice that histones affect the left and right side of the heart differently, depending on the levels of histone in the blood. They learnt that the left side is significantly more affected, even by moderate levels of histone.

What next for the team?

The researchers found that an anti-histone treatment worked at cancelling the effects of histones on the heart. And Dr Guozheng Wang explained: "Our team is now looking at what levels of histone cause damage on the heart during sepsis before we begin looking further at testing new treatments, which could ultimately help save the lives of thousands of people."

Our Associate Medical Director, Professor Jeremy Pearson, outlined the impact of the research: "Although at an early stage, these findings point to a promising way to target and treat the heart damage associated with sepsis. These results, along with the team’s earlier work, also offer the possibility of developing a test, measuring histone levels, which could be used to identify the patients suffering from sepsis who are at greatest risk of heart problems."

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