Student’s research provides insight into lung infections

A MSU graduate student recently discovered a molecule that is a vital part of the human body’s immune response to lung infections. Alayna Caffrey, a doctoral student from the department of microbiology and immunology, had her research published online on Jan. 28. The paper discusses the molecule IL1α, a protein that signals when a cell has been damaged and is one of the immune system’s first responses to certain infections.

Other co-authors of the paper from MSU are Margaret Lehmann, Julianne Zickovich, Christopher Watschke, Kimberly Hilmer and Joshua Obar. Obar runs the lab where Caffrey researches. The overall goal of Obar’s lab is to gain a greater understanding of immune responses to microbial infections.

Before coming to MSU, Caffrey earned her bachelor’s degree in pre-professional biology from Delaware Valley College where she became interested in microbiology. After she graduated, she worked in the dairy industry for three years in quality assurance. However, Caffrey spent her spare time reading books on virology and immunology, and her interest in the areas motivated her to pursue research in those fields.

“When I came to MSU I was interested in Dr. Obar’s lab because he was working with the flu virus, which I was very interested in … When I joined, my rotation project was to start looking at the immune response to Aspergillus fumigatus … I kind of just fell into the project by joining the lab as a rotation student,” Caffrey said.

Caffrey’s research focuses on Aspergillus fumigatus, a mold commonly found in soils. Exposure to A. fumigatus is frequent among humans and is generally harmless; however, individuals with immunodeficiency, such as organ transplant recipients or individuals with leukemia, are much more vulnerable to lung infection by A. fumigatus, a condition known as aspergillosis.

The lab’s findings reveal IL1α’s importance to cell recruitment and attempt to understand why the immune responses of different populations to fungal pathogens is so varied. For instance individuals whose immune systems are compromised may be placed in greater danger of infection.

“I would like to see how this level is altered in different populations,” Caffrey said, “If this is being increased in certain populations; there are treatments out there where you can block IL-1 and potentially decrease the severity of the disease.”

By controlling the release of IL1α, the effectiveness of anti-fungal drugs, which are rarely effective on their own, could potentially be increased. By extension, many lives lost to aspergillosis could be saved.

“Compared to other pathogens, there’s a lot less known about fungal infections … they are less studied than bacterial or viral infections, so I think the high mortality rate of people it actually effects is not well known,” Caffrey said, “Fungal infections are a major issue in the immunocompromised population.”

She explained that as medical technology advances, the population of those with compromised immune systems will continue to grow, creating more people vulnerable to life-threatening infections like aspergillosis. She pointed out that the population of organ transplant recipients, who require the extended use of immunosuppressant drugs, has increased in response to medical advances.

With these potential medicinal benefits, the next step of Caffrey’s research will be to better understand how the levels of IL1α and other signalling molecules are affected in the immunocompromised population and to continue to discover how these levels can be changed to save lives.

Caffrey’s paper has been published online by PLOS Pathogens, an open-access, peer-reviewed scientific journal, and can be found at journals.plos.org/plospathogens/article?id=10.1371/journal.ppat.1004625