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By: Anna Goshua and Arshia Javidan/ Meducator
Why do we get sick? Moreover, why do we get better? That essentially encapsulates the research being done by Dawn Bowdish and her team at McMaster University’s Immunology Research Centre. Bowdish is an Associate Professor in the Department of Pathology, and her research focuses on pneumonia, the most costly bacterial infection in Ontario.
The bacteria that causes pneumonia is initially found in the nose, where no symptoms are observed unless it enters the lungs, bloodstream or cerebrospinal fluid. Bowdish specifically investigates why the bacteria leaves the nose in the first place, with a focus on the aging population.
“We’re particularly focused on older adults, as they contract pneumonia at much higher rates, and the consequences can be very serious,” Bowdish said. The long-term complications of contracting pneumonia include increased risk of dementia, type II diabetes and cardiovascular disease later on in life. In order to shed light on why older individuals are more susceptible to contracting pneumonia, Bowdish researches age-related changes in the immune system that may be involved.
The data is compelling in demonstrating that as we age, our levels of inflammation increase. Inflammation is a cellular response to injury or infection that is carried out by the immune system. Many age-related diseases, such as conditions involving dementia, some forms of cancer and cardiovascular disease, are linked to inflammation.
“For reasons that we’re just beginning to understand, this increasing inflammation seems to impair white blood cell function. The bacteria is able to capitalize on these inflammatory changes in the immune system in order to thrive,” Bowdish explained.
“We think that we can target age-related inflammation as a way of improving immunity. We’re testing this in an animal model at the moment. By reducing their age-related inflammation, we can improve their outcomes from pneumonia, which is a finding we’re quite excited about,” she said.
If the preclinical testing phase determines that age-related inflammation is a viable drug target, then the next phase would be a drug-screening program that would further examine the effectiveness of anti-inflammatory drugs in improving immune function. This drug has the potential to decrease the risk of devastating illnesses such as pneumonia.
Bowdish has seen how older adults benefit younger generations. “I think grandparents are really important. There’s a lot of data to support the positive role of older adults in society. They volunteer more hours than younger people and they provide a lot of unpaid caregiving. So we want them to be as healthy as they can possibly be. Essentially, my research is about keeping grandchildren and grandparents together for many years to come.”
Photo Credit: Yung Lee/ Photo Reporter