Senior author Daren Knoell of Ohio State University and colleagues determined in human cell culture and animal studies that a protein lures zinc into key cells that are first-responders against infection. The zinc homes in on this pathway and helps shut it down, ensuring that the immune response -- inflammation -- does not spiral out of control. Inflammation is linked to diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, lupus or multiple sclerosis.
Zinc's activity was studied in the context of sepsis, a systemic response to infection that is a common cause of death in intensive-care unit patients.
"We do believe these findings are going to be applicable to other important areas of disease beyond sepsis," Knoell said in a statement. "Without zinc on board to begin with, it could increase vulnerability to infection."
However, Knoell said it is too early to suggest zinc supplementation
"I think the question is whom to give zinc to, if anybody at all. We predict that not everybody in the ICU with sepsis needs zinc, but I anticipate that a proportion of them would," Knoell said. "Zinc is a critical element that we get from our diet, but we do not think we can give zinc and fix everything. Usually, if there is zinc deficiency, we would expect to see other nutrient deficiencies, too."
The findings were published in the journal Cell Reports.