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COVID Patients Need New Energy for Flagging Immune Cells – One Diet Might Help, Scientists Say

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What causes T cell dysfunction in COVID-19 can be targeted with a change in diet, according to a new study published today.

When we’re sick, we tend to lose interest in food. This also changes our metabolism. Since it isn’t getting as many carbs as it used to, it starts burning fat instead. This results in the formation of molecules known as ketone bodies, which are high in energy. And these may help the body better combat viruses.

The findings of the present investigation at least support that. Prof. Dr. Christoph Wilhelm, who works at the University Hospital Bonn’s Institute of Clinical Chemistry and Clinical Pharmacology and is a part of the Immunosensation2 Cluster of Excellence, says, “We found that patients with influenza infections produce ketone bodies in considerable quantities.”

When it came to Covid-19 patients, however, the rise was minimal, at least among those with a moderate or severe course.

Aside from that, the coronavirus-infected individuals were found to have lower amounts of inflammatory messengers in their bloodstream. This was especially true with interferon-gamma. This cytokine is produced by the T-helper cells, a particular subset of immune cells. These cells employ it to call in phagocytes and other immune system defense forces to assist in the fight against viruses. However, it appears that the helper T cells need a sufficient amount of ketone bodies to produce IFN-gamma effectively. Interferon-gamma production is reduced if this is absent. The helper T cells also pass away sooner as a result.

Ketone bodies strengthen the immune system

Similar results were observed by the researchers in another significant subset of immune cells called killer T cells. According to Dr. Christian Bode, lecturer in the Department of Anesthesiology and Surgical Intensive Care Medicine at the University Hospital Bonn, “They too need ketone bodies to function well and effectively eliminate the virus.” It appears that ketone bodies encourage the activity of mitochondria, the metabolic engines that drive immune cells. In addition to guaranteeing increased energy production, this also delivers the chemicals required for interferon production.

On the other hand, the killer T cells and helper T cells exhibit signs of tiredness when there is an inadequate supply of ketone bodies, according to Bode. “In this depleted state, they can no longer perform their function adequately.” However, they were able to restore the immune cells by either giving ketone bodies or putting sick mice on a ketogenic diet (a diet low in protein and carbohydrates). The animals then had better success eradicating the infection and suffered noticeably less lung damage.

Hope for new ways to treat people

So, the results also give us hope for new ways to treat diseases. According to Wilhelm, an intentional change in diet may be able to strengthen the body’s natural defenses. “Whether this really works must now be shown by further studies.”  The experts strongly caution against trying out diets or supplements on your own because they can have the opposite effect of what you’re hoping for.

The latest findings might also be applicable to other infections. They may potentially contribute to novel techniques to help the body fight cancers in the medium run.

Image Credit: Getty

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