Dietary supplement could prevent Cryptosporidium infection

A common dietary supplement could help to protect infants against chronic Cryptosporidium infections, British researchers have reported.

Cryptosporidium, one of the leading causes of diarrhoea-related deaths in children, is associated with malnutrition and growth stunting and is also a common infection in people with a weakened immune system.

The infection is particularly prevalent in children under the age of two years and who live in insanitary environments, researchers say.

A previous study found that human volunteers who were exposed to Cryptosporidium found those with higher levels of indoles – normally found in cruciferous vegetables – in their faeces prior to exposure were resistant to infection. Indoles are known to activate the AHR system.

For this study, published in Cell Host & Microbe, two teams of researchers at the Crick Institute, UK, teamed up to investigate if, and how, the AHR system protects against Cryptosporidium infection.

They exposed mice to the Cryptosporidium parasite and observed that infection triggered an expansion of immune cells in the intestinal epithelium, which are part of the first line of defence against the parasite.

When these CD8+ T cells were transferred to mice with weakened immune systems, the mice could fight off Cryptosporidium infection.

Mice without the AHR receptor, or healthy mice fed a diet specifically deficient in indoles, had fewer intestinal CD8+ T cells, which meant they were less able to fight off the infection.

When nursing mouse mothers were given indoles, it transferred to babies through milk. When the young mice were exposed to Cryptosporidium, they never became ill, which demonstrates the AHR system could protect against infections in newborns.

Joint first author Murali Maradana, with Bishara Marzook, is now working in India to investigate the impact of giving nursing mothers indole supplements.

Adam Sateriale, group leader of the Cryptosporidiosis Laboratory at the Crick, said: “Cryptosporidium causes severe illness which can be fatal, and children who are malnourished often experience recurring infections.

“Indole supplements could easily be added to therapeutic food formulas given to people where Cryptosporidium is prevalent, and we are very excited that Murali will be continuing to explore the potential of this intervention in his new role.”

Gitta Stockinger, group leader of the AHR Immunity Laboratory at the Crick, added: “Our study proves that dietary molecules which activate AHR, like indole-3-carbinol, could be used to stop a vicious cycle of chronic Cryptosporidium infections, and may protect young children from becoming ill in the first place if given to nursing mothers.”

Maradana M and Marzook B et al. Dietary environmental factors shape the immune defence against Cryptosporidium infection. Cell Host & Microbe 4 December 2023; doi: 10.1016/j.chom.2023.11.008.

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