09/27/2012 01:57 EDT | Updated 11/27/2012 05:12 EST

Immune cells research could lead to better treatment for blood poisoning

CALGARY - Calgary researchers are hoping their discovery about how immune cells combat severe infections will lead to improved ways to treat sepsis.

Sepsis is a potentially deadly blood poisoning caused by a bacterial infection usually contracted in hospitals. Common sites of infection include intravenous lines, surgical wounds, surgical drains and bed sores.

Generally blood pressure drops, which results in shock. Major organs and body systems, including the kidneys, liver, lungs, and central nervous system, stop working properly because of poor blood flow.

The key finding of researchers Bryan Yipp and Bjoern Petri from the Snyder Institute for Chronic Diseases in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Calgary is what happens to the white blood cells, or neutrophils, after they attack an infection. It was believed that the cell would cover the bacteria with a net-like material and then die.

"This process was thought to involve an explosive cell death or a beneficial suicide so the way these cells could get the contents out is to explode so they would be dead," said Yipp.

"It actually turns out that is not true and that these cells can actually release their internal contents and survive. They can actually continue to function and perform a very valuable function in order to get rid of the bacteria."

It's sort of like cracking an egg and removing the yolk. The white part of the egg is still able to function even though a major part of it is missing.

"The cells after they are released are still viable. They can still move around in the tissue and they are still able to go on and fight. They are not dead. They still have a function and this is a very new and exciting discovery," said Petri.

It is hoped that the newly discovered pathways may be a way to improve immune defences against bacteria and limit sepsis from occurring.

Sepsis is among the leading causes of death in intensive care units, About 1,400 people worldwide die from it every day. It costs the health-care system more than $37,000 per patient to treat and weeks of recovery time.

"People always want to know is this therapeutic? Do we now have a cure for something? I think that would not be true," said Yipp.

"What is true is this was never known before and I think if we don't really understand the process of a disease it's impossible to design a rational, targeted therapeutic procedure."

Both Yipp and Petri say it could be possible to direct the neutrophil cells to attack certain infections and provide a higher level of survival for septic patients.

But it is also possible that too many neutrophils can cause damage to cells.

Yipp said little progress has been made in battling sepsis over the years and it might require going back to the beginning.

"Over the last five years we've actually lost a number of therapeutics we used to use and now we have very little in the way of treating people with sepsis other than advanced life support," said Yipp.

"For a disease as complicated as sepsis, I think we have to take a couple of steps backward to understand the process because we're off and running with all these new therapeutics every week.

"Where does that ever go? It doesn't go anywhere."

The research, funded by Alberta Innovates Health Solutions, was recently published in the journal Nature Medicine.