Feinstein CEO, global researchers demonstrate significance of neurotransmitter in viral infection

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Feinstein Institute for Medical Research President and CEO Dr. Kevin J. Tracey has joined with leading scientists across Canada, Europe and Asia, to discover the critical role the chemical acetylcholine plays as a neurotransmitter in combating chronic viral infection, as published online today in Science. A neurosurgeon specialist in the molecular mechanisms of inflammation, Tracey has studied the immune system for decades and led the development of the emerging field of bioelectronic medicine.

The new study details how acetylcholine, a chemical known to be produced by neurons, is also produced by white blood cells as a signal to fight viruses. The team, led by Tak W. Mak and Maureen A. Cox from Canada’s University Health Network’s Princess Margaret Cancer Centre, discovered that genetically-engineered mice that fail to produce acetylcholine in T-Cells fail to control chronic virus infections. 

“This finding – that immune cells need acetylcholine to fight viral infections – is an important and surprising insight into how to strengthen the immune system,” said Tracey. “It offers a crucial new insight into how to pursue bioelectronic medicine devices to treat infections.”

Bioelectronic medicine combines neuroscience, molecular biology and bioengineering to tap into the nervous system to treat disease and injury without the use of pharmaceuticals.

“We now have absolute genetic proof that immune cells need this brain chemical in order to swing into action to attack disease,” said Mak. “Not only does it give us a sharper understanding of the body’s immunological response mechanisms, it also brings immunology and bioelectronic medicine onto the same path of discovery.” 

In November 2016, the Feinstein Institute presented its Anthony Cerami Award in Translational Medicine to Mak in recognition of his research into T-cell activation, tumor suppressors, and the genetics of immunology, with the goal of translating basic research discoveries into new treatments for cancer.

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