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MSU researcher studies heart disease, Salmonella
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- A Mississippi State University researcher is directing two international studies that could help scientists better understand the role of the body’s natural immune system in preventing heart disease and the rise in drug-resistant bacteria.
Dr. Matthew Ross, an associate professor of molecular toxicology in the MSU College of Veterinary Medicine, Department of Basic Sciences, collaborates with scientists at the Jiangsu Academy of Agricultural Sciences in Nanjing, China, to investigate whether the endocannabinoid system can help the body’s immune cells become more efficient at breaking down cholesterol and fighting microbial infections, such as salmonella.
The endocannabinoid system, which was originally discovered in the brain, produces special fats throughout the body. These fats, known as endocannabinoids, activate potent biological processes -- including the regulation of mood, appetite and anxiety -- when they bind to cannabinoid receptors on cells. Recently, researchers discovered endocannabinoids also play an important role in controlling blood circulation and the immune system.
“Immune cells in the body’s tissues, such as the heart’s vessels, and white blood cells are frontline defenders in the innate immune system,” Ross said. “When the body encounters a foreign pathogen, these immune cells cause the body to make and secrete a variety of natural toxic molecules to kill that pathogen.
“We now have evidence that the endocannabinoid system plays an important role in the initial signaling of these immune cells and could influence host-pathogen interactions and reduce inflammation of the coronary arteries,” Ross said. “In addition, we are interested in how toxins contribute to endocannabinoid system activation and overall inflammatory processes.”
Ross and his Chinese counterparts want to pinpoint the enzymes inside the body’s immune cells that can be targeted by medications to enhance the response of endocannabinoids.
“There is emerging evidence that endocannabinoids can have a pro- or anti-inflammatory effect in a variety of physiological contexts, including in the heart’s arteries,” Ross said.
In their first study, the team wants to know how environmental pollutants, such as air pollution or cigarette smoke, lessen the efficiency of cholesterol breakdown by the body’s immune cells, causing coronary artery disease. They also are interested in how chemicals can trigger the endocannabinoid system to help or hinder natural immune processes.
Their second study focuses on how endocannabinoids can help fight Salmonella infections in poultry.
“This segment of agriculture provides an affordable protein source and is a vital economic driver in the southeastern United States,” Ross said. “We hope this study leads to information on how medications could increase endocannabinoid levels during salmonella infection and establishes whether the drugs help immune cells perform their job.”
Dr. Stephen Pruett, head of the MSU Department of Basic Sciences, said this type of research provides the necessary groundwork for developing useful medications.
“Pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies are already testing drugs that target the endocannabinoid system as anti-inflammatory agents that may not have the adverse side effects seen with commonly used anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen,” Pruett said. “However, to design the best possible drugs, we really need to know more about the endocannabinoid system, its normal roles in both health and disease, and how environmental influences affect this system.”
Ross and Ran Wang, professor at the Jiangsu Academy of Agricultural Sciences Institute of Food Safety, have made notable progress since they began the project in 2011. They have co-authored five academic articles on their research. Wang spent more than two years training and performing research in Ross’ lab, and Ross visited the Chinese academy twice.
Ross will return to China for two months in the summer of 2015 to help set up bioanalytical equipment for research in food safety and toxicology. He will also help train one of Wang’s postdoctoral fellows at MSU.
Partnerships such as the one Ross and Wang have fostered benefit research and strengthen its outcomes, Pruett said.
“It is almost impossible for a single researcher or even a single university to have all the expertise and equipment to conduct the complex work needed to understand disease processes in great detail,” Pruett said. “The Chinese government is rapidly increasing the amount of funding invested in biomedical research, and we have benefited substantially from Dr. Ross’ relationships with Chinese colleagues, just as they have us. This association also helps promote understanding and peaceful relationships between two great countries who will likely be leaders in biomedical research for many years to come.”
Contact: Karen Templeton, 662-325-1100