Studying the immunology of bats with white-nose fungus – who sometimes suffer in the same way that humans with AIDS do – could help in the development of treatments for the deadly disease, scientists say.Carol Meteyer, a scientist for the US Geological Survey, peered through a microscope at hundreds of little bats and noticed that they had managed to survive the white-nose fungus that had killed millions of other bats hibernating in caves.However, they had succumbed to something else that had left their tiny corpses in tatters, their wings scorched and pocked with holes.
Meteyer realised that the bats were killed by their own hyper-aggressive immune systems in a struggle to fight off the fungus that causes white-nose syndrome. Meteyer had stumbled upon a phenomenon never before seen in mammals in the wild – a similar finding had been observed only once before – in people with AIDS. Now scientists hope studying the immunology of bats might help in the development of treatments for AIDS.When bats hibernate in winter, their heart rates slow and their immune systems all but shut down, making them vulnerable to the cave-dwelling fungus Geomyces destructans that causes white-nose and eats away skin, connective tissue and muscle. It’s not natural. It’s cellular suicide. It comes out in a huge wave, going out to those areas of infection and kills everything. For AIDS patients, after antiretroviral treatment improves patients’ health, their restored immune systems can launch an exaggerated attack against any previously acquired infection the treatment didn’t catch, causing extensive damage. Scientists now hope to study the immunology of bats to try to uncover findings that can assist the development of treatments for AIDS. Meteyer envisions a day when “we can look closely at the mechanism driving this intense response in bats and potentially get insight into this phenomenon in humans.