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Saturday, June 10, 2006

ScienCentral Video News: Good Nicotine

"We all know nicotine as the addictive substance that gets people hooked on cigarettes, which can kill you. But as this ScienCentral News video explains, now nicotine could also be a tool in defeating one of the leading causes of death in the developed world.

Putting Out the Fire

The nicotine that gets people hooked on cigarettes can be implicated in hundreds of thousands of deaths in the U.S. each year. But immunologist Luis Ulloa has found that it can also reverse the condition called sepsis, which kills some 250,000 Americans a year.

Typically, when your body responds to an infection, immune cells send out chemical messengers called cytokines. Some of these cytokines force your blood to clot, which ensures that the threatening material doesn't spread throughout the body.

Usually sparked by trauma or a bacterial infection, sepsis is when this immune response goes into overdrive. Ulloa explains, 'Your immune system becomes very strong, [and it] wants to protect your body at any cost.'

Ulloa Lab
People in the early stages of sepsis may feel confused, have a fever and rapid heart rate, and develop a rash. Sepsis is often confused with other conditions, Ulloa says, and treating the underlying infection with antibiotics misses the root of the problem. 'It's your own immune response who is killing you,' he explains. 'So your own immune response becomes so strong that it's attacking the cardiovascular system and it's able to cause multiple organ failure.'

Previous studies showed that smokers are less prone to another disease of the immune system, ulcerative colitis. This inflammatory disease attacks the digestive system, but was found to affect a disproportionate number of non-smokers.

This led Ulloa and his team at North Shore University Hospital in Long Island to study nicotine as an anti-inflammatory for sepsis. He discovered that nicotine grabs immune cells and prevents them from spewing inflammatory cytokines throughout the body.

In laboratory tests it was able to reverse sepsis in mice. After inducing sepsis, researchers waited until the mice became sick to inject the nicotine. It worked: many of the mice, Ulloa says, got better within 24 hours. He says that this experiment closely replicates how sepsis could be treated in the real world, 'because for patients, you can't predict when someone will go into sepsis. So you have to develop different experimental strategies to be able to rescue the patient.'"

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