Bacterial product could cure viral infections, scientists say

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – The bacterial protein flagellin could have an important role in preventing and treating viral infections, according to a study involving Penn State researchers.

Specifically, in findings published in the Nov. 14 issue of Science, the researchers described that activation of the innate immune system with the bacterial protein flagellin could prevent and cure rotavirus infection, which is amongst the most common causes of severe diarrhea.

The research, which was spearheaded by Andrew Gewirtz and Benyue Zhang of the Institute for Biomedical Sciences at Georgia State University, included collaborators at Emory University School of Medicine, Baylor College of Medicine, Vanderbilt University School of Medicine and Genentech Inc. Matam Vijay-Kumar, assistant professor of nutritional sciences at Penn State, co-authored the study.

“Generally viral infections are controlled by immune system molecules called interferons, which interfere with viral replication, or by specific antibodies from preimmunized conditions which neutralize the virus,” Vijay-Kumar said. “But flagellin mediated rotaviral clearance is independent of interferons and antibodies. These mechanisms can provide insights into treating other viral infections in the intestine,” he said.

Vijay-Kumar has been studying flagellin for more than a decade. In one previous study, Vijay-Kumar and his colleagues found that mice treated with flagellin prior to whole body radiation exposure were  protected against side effects.

“Matam Vijay-Kumar's colleagues in the Department of Nutritional Sciences are thrilled with his research accomplishments focused on the preventing intestinal viral infections by harnessing host innate immunity via exploiting bacterial product,” said Gordon Jensen, professor and head of nutritional sciences at Penn State. “His new paper in Science on flagellin and rotavirus is a landmark contribution that establishes him as an innovative leader in the field.”

Additional co-authors include Benoit Chassaing, Zhenda Shi, Robin Uchiyama, Timothy Denning and Zhan Zhang, of the Center for Inflammation, Immunity and Infection at the Institute for Biomedical Sciences at Georgia State University in Atlanta, Georgia; Sue Crawford and Mary Estes, of the Department of Molecular Virology and Microbiology at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston; Ardina Pruijssers, Jason Iskarpatyoti and Terence Dermody, of the Department of Pediatrics, Pathology, Microbiology and Immunity, and Elizabeth B. Lamb Center for Pediatric Research at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, Tennessee; Wenjun Ouyang, of the department of immunology at Gentech Inc. in San Francisco; and Ifor Williams, of the Department of Pathology and the Department of Pediatrics at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta.

The National Institutes of Health and the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act supported this research.

For more information about the Department of Nutritional Sciences at Penn State, visit

For more information about Science or to view the paper online, visit

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Last Updated November 14, 2014