Photo of zinc tablets
Zinc controls several immune pathways which help keep infection and inflammation in check

How zinc protects against sepsis infection

4 August, 2014

Natural Health News — In cases of sepsis – a type of systemic infection – a deficiency of zinc can cause an amplified and potentially deadly immune response, according to recent research.

Scientists at Ohio State University have identified a critical immune system pathway that relies on zinc to stop overproduction of an inflammatory protein that if left unchecked, can start to destroy healthy cells.

“When the body detects an infection, zinc is recruited to help produce immune response proteins, and then it’s used to stop their production,” said lead author Daren Knoell, PharmD, PhD, a professor of pharmacy and internal medicine at Ohio State. “But zinc deficiency during sepsis appears to cause a catastrophic malfunctioning of the system, resulting in a magnified and prolonged inflammatory response.”

An on-off switch

To help identify genes and signalling pathways that may be influenced by zinc, Knoell and his team performed a complex genetic analysis of lung tissue taken from zinc-deficient mice with sepsis. They found that in the presence of sepsis, multiple networks and pathways were impacted by the zinc deficiency.

One of the most significant of these was one called the JAK-STAT3 pathway and the production of serum amyloid A (SAA) – a protein which has only recently been identified as a key player in the body’s immune response.

This pathway, say the researchers, keeps giving the genes the “on” signal, and continues production of this inflammatory protein. But adequate zinc moderates the pathway that controls the “on-off switch” of genes that produce immune response proteins, preventing the inflammation they cause from harming healthy tissue.

A hard to treat infection

Sepsis, a complication resulting from a systemic infection, is a leading cause of death in intensive care units. As many as 20% of people who develop sepsis will die, not from the infection itself – but from the overload of inflammatory chemical signals created by the immune system which ultimately leads to organ failure.

Knoell says a next step is to see if these recent findings apply to humans “Once we can determine at risk patients, then we can start a much more systematic evaluation of zinc supplementation,” Knoell said. “With so few interventions available for sepsis, I’m hopeful we’ll see more energy around developing a zinc-based therapy in the next few years.”

While the findings in the journal PLOS One seem to suggest that zinc supplementation could benefit patients at risk for sepsis, Knoell says it’s not that simple.

Determining zinc’s role in sepsis is challenging. Next to iron, zinc is the most abundant mineral in the human body, interacting with as many as 10,000 proteins within the genome. While scientists have known that zinc is essential to human health and the immune system for hundreds of years, until recently, very little was known about how it functions on a molecular level.