Histones are essential for packaging DNA into the cell nucleus and also play a role in regulating gene expression but scientists at the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and the Temple University School of Medicine have shown that histones released into the blood stream at the onset of sepsis can have devastating effects.
Sepsis – a life-threatening condition caused by the immune system going into overdrive in its fight against infection – can lead to small blood clots blocking blood flow to vital organs resulting in organ failure. Histones are part of the body’s rapid response to infections, but the new study shows that, when released into the bloodstream, they contribute to endothelial damage, organ failure and death. Histones are also released in response to severe physical trauma such as traffic accident injuries, gunshot wounds or battlefield injuries.
Earlier research by members of the team had shown that histone levels increased in the circulation of baboons challenged with a lethal dose of Escherichia coli and accompanied the onset of renal dysfunction. Co-administration of activated protein C (APC) protected the animals from the effects of sepsis and in vitro experiments revealed that macrophages rescued from a sepsis-like response by APC contained fragments of cleaved histones. When the team examined blood samples taken in the baboon studies, they found that cleavage of histones by APC reduced their toxicity and prevented a lethal reaction to infection. In cultures of human endothelial cells, and in mice, histones alone – in the absence of injury or infection – were shown to produce a sepsis-like response. The team then showed that the effects of sepsis could be reduced in both cell culture experiments and in several mouse models of sepsis by treatment with an anti-histone antibody.
The study, which was published online on 25th October in the journal Nature Medicine, suggests that blocking the action of histones, either by increasing enzymatic cleavage or by using antibodies, could provide a new way of managing sepsis and controlling internal bleeding following severe trauma.
The team also plan to explore the contribution of histones to autoimmune diseases such as lupus or diabetes as well as diseases associated with cardiovascular or other tissue injury.