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Insect genes provide clues to help beat the heat


New findings from insect studies at Queen’s and U of T may help to protect our brains from extremely high fevers that sometimes trigger seizures, particularly in infants and small children.

While the seizures themselves are generally harmless, a prolonged fever resulting from infection or heatstroke of over 108˚F (42˚C) can eventually lead to respiratory distress, cognitive dysfunction, brain damage, or death.

The research suggests that manipulation of a single gene or genetic pathway in fruit flies and locusts will rapidly protect the nervous system from failure due to extreme heat stress.

“We’ve been studying neuro-protective mechanisms in these model systems for more than a decade, and were amazed by the speed and potency of this treatment,” says senior researcher Mel Robertson, head of Biology at Queen’s.

The findings are published on-line today in the journal PLoS ONE (Public Library of Science ONE). Also on the team are PhD student Gary Armstrong from Queen’s, and U of T researchers Marla Sokolowski, Canada Research Chair in Genetics, Clement King, and post-doctoral fellow Ken Dawson-Scully.

The new study shows that the foraging gene, responsible for a protein called PKG, protects against heat-induced neural failure in fruit flies. Using drugs that interact with the PKG molecule, the researchers induced an extremely rapid protection of neural function during heat stress in both fruit flies and locusts.

“During heat trauma to the brain, there exists a window of opportunity between the time of occurrence of neural dysfunction and eventual brain damage or death,” says Dr. Dawson-Scully. “Manipulation of the PKG pathway during this period should increase an individual’s chance of survival.”

The increasing prevalence of lethal heat waves associated with climate change – as well as the dangers of brain hyperthermia to firefighters and others exposed to extreme heat – make this an issue of universal interest, notes Dr. Robertson. “Our data point both to a pathway that can be chemically targeted, and to a plausible genetic basis,” he says. “Answers to important questions are being suggested by insect model systems.”

The research was supported by the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.


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