Dormant viruses re-emerge in patients with lingering sepsis, signaling immune suppression

June 13, 2014

A study by a team at Washington University School of Medicine provides strong evidence that when sepsis lingers for more than a few days, viruses re-emerge and enter the bloodstream, signaling that the immune system has become suppressed. This state of immune suppression may leave patients unable to fight off secondary infections. The research, published this week in PLOS One, suggests that drugs that “rev up” the immune system could be incorporated into the treatment of prolonged sepsis.

“A controversy has existed over whether patients with sepsis progress to a state of immune suppression,” says co-senior author Gregory Storch, MD. “The finding that critically ill patients with sepsis have a number of different viruses circulating in the bloodstream is compelling evidence they are immune-suppressed and dramatically could alter therapy for sepsis.”

Surprisingly, the researchers detected levels of viruses in sepsis patients that were on par with those seen in patients who have had organ transplants and are taking immune-suppression drugs to prevent rejection.“This is an indicator of the degree of immune suppression in septic patients,” notes co-senior author Richard S. Hotchkiss, MD.

The findings open the door to new ways of treating sepsis. Over the years, a number of treatments have been evaluated, with limited success. The new research indicates that, in addition to using powerful antibiotics to fight off infections in patients with sepsis, immunotherapy drugs that boost the immune system may be an effective therapy. The Washington University team is planning several clinical trials of such drugs in sepsis patients in the near future. Read the study.

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