Mucus,body’s first line defense
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Mucus, the body’s first line of defense

6:04 AM, 26th April 2012
Mucus, the body’s first line of defense
A surface mucous cell bordering on the stomach lumen secretes mucus (pink stain). © Public Library of Science Journal.

CAMBRIDGE, US: According to Katharina Ribbeck, Biological Engineer, MIT mucus is a fascinating material. “Without it, we wouldn’t be able to smell, we wouldn’t be able to reproduce, and we would all be the victims of pathogens,” said Ribbeck, who studies the antiviral properties of mucins, the main component of mucus.

Mucus, which coats wet surfaces in the bodies of all animals, is the body’s first line of defense. It allows nutrients, other vital molecules and sperm to enter, but keeps out pathogens such as certain dangerous viruses and bacteria. Ribbeck is trying to figure out how mucus achieves this selectivity. Of particular interest is the role of mucins, the major building blocks of mucus.

“Many times they’re regarded as inert scaffold elements, but the picture that is emerging is that they really have an active function in the body’s defense system,” said Ribbeck. A better understanding of mucins’ immune function could shed light on why certain people are more susceptible to viral or bacterial infections, said Ribbeck. Mucin composition can differ between people, and it also varies depending on factors such as a person’s age, diet and the time of year.

Previous research has shown that mucins, long threadlike proteins with many sugar molecules attached, are abundant in breast milk, protecting infants against viruses such as rotavirus and HIV. To find out if this antiviral role was more general, Ribbeck tested mucins’ ability to block three different viruses from entering cells. Ribbeck and her students created a gel from purified mucins. The researchers coated human epithelial cells with a layer of this gel and then exposed them to human papilloma virus, influenza A and Merkel cell polyomavirus. All three viruses were trapped in the mucin gel, preventing them from infecting the cells.

The researchers also found that salt has a strong effect on how effectively mucins block viral entry. High salt concentration makes the mucins less penetrable, which offers a possible explanation for why gargling or rinsing the nasal passages with salt water often soothes cold or flu symptoms, said Ribbeck. The researchers are now investigating how salt enhances mucins’ performance.

Ribbeck also plans to study how viruses manage to overcome the defensive mucus barrier. She suspects that bacteria may act as accomplices, breaking down the sugars found in mucin and clearing the way for viruses to get through. Also, viruses may hitch a ride with bacteria as they make their make through the mucus layer. Once viruses infect cells, they can return the favour by shutting down many of the body’s immune defenses, giving bacteria a better chance to establish their own infections.

Though the researchers looked at three specific viruses in this study, they believe mucins should have the same protective effects against most viruses. Because of that, mucins could make good antiviral additives to personal hygiene products. Purified mucins are already used as an ingredient in artificial saliva, and at least one cosmetic company uses them in high-end moisturizers (for their moisturizing properties).

© MIT News

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