Too much of this ingredient leads to autoimmune diseases, new research shows. Here's how to cut back.
For more than a century, doctors have warned that too much salt in your diet can lead to high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke - and many of the reasons for these effects are well known. But recently scientists have been looking deeper, into the cellular level, and they are finding additional reasons to minimize sodium intake; it is bad for immune cells, creating patterns of gene expression and activity seen in a variety of autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and type-1 diabetes.
Salt is a major part of the ocean from which life evolved on this planet. We carry that legacy in our blood, which tastes salty. It is an important element for conducting electrical signals along nerves and balancing water and metabolites transported throughout our bodies. We need to consume about 500 milligrams of salt each day to maintain these functions, more with exercise and heavy sweating as that is a major way the body loses salt. The problem is that most Americans eating a modern western diet consume about 3400 milligrams, 1.5 teaspoons per day.
Evidence has been accumulating over the last few years that elevated levels of sodium can be harmful to at least some types of immune cells. The first signal came in monocytes, which are immune cells that travel to various tissues in the body, where some of them turn into macrophages, a subset of white blood cells that can directly kill microorganisms and make chemical signals that bring other types of immune cells into play.
Two years ago, Dominik N. Müller from the Max-Delbrueck-Center in Berlin, Germany and Markus Kleinewietfeld, an immunologist at Hasselt University in Belgium, ran a study where they fed people pizza and then measured their immune cell function. “We saw that in any monocytes, metabolic function was down, even after a single salty meal,” Kleinewietfeld says. It seemed to be the cellular equivalent of the sluggish feeling we get after eating too much. The cells were able to recover but more research is needed to answer questions about what dose of sodium causes impairment, how long the damage lasts, and whether there is a cumulative effect of salt toxicity.
Kleinewietfeld and his colleagues have hypothesized that too much salt could be a significant factor in the increased number of autoimmune diseases and allergies over the last few generations.
The latest series of experiments focused on a type of T cell called T regulatory cells, or Tregs. Most T cells release inflammatory mediators to fight pathogens and, once that job is done, Tregs come along to calm down their hyperactive brethren. Failure to do so can result in continued inflammation and possibly autoimmune diseases.
In the lab, Kleinewietfeld and his large team of international collaborators saw that high levels of sodium had a huge effect on Tregs, upregulating 1250 genes and downregulating an additional 1380 genes so that they looked similar to patterns of gene expression seen in autoimmune diseases.
Digging deeper, they found that sodium affected mitochondria, the tiny organelles inside of cells that produce much of its energy. The sodium was interfering with how the mitochondria use oxygen, which resulted in increased levels of an unstable form of oxygen that can damage cell function. The researchers injected those damaged Tregs into mice and found that they impaired the animals' immune function, allowing the inflammation to continue rather than shutting it down.
That finding dovetailed nicely with a 2019 paper in Nature from Navdeep Chandel's lab at Northwestern University, which showed in mice that inhibiting the mitochondrial use of oxygen reduced the ability of Tregs to regulate other T cells. “Mitochondria were controlling directly the immunosuppressive program, they were this master regulator tuning the right amount of genes to give you proper immunosuppression,” Chandel said. “And if you lose that function, then you get autoimmunity.”
Kleinewietfeld's team studied the Treg cells of humans and found that sodium can similarly decrease mitochondrial use of oxygen and immunosuppressive activity. “I would have never predicted that myself,” Chandel says, but now researchers can look at the mitochondria of patients with autoimmune disease and see if their gene expression also changes under high salt conditions. He sees the link between the patterns of gene expression in Tregs generated by high salt exposure and those patterns seen in autoimmune diseases, but he is cautious about claiming a causal effect.
Kleinewietfeld and his colleagues have hypothesized that too much salt could be a significant factor in the increased number of autoimmune diseases and allergies over the last few generations. He says a high salt diet could also have an indirect effect on immune function through the way it affects the gut microbiome and the molecules made by microbes when they break down food. But the research results are too preliminary to say that for sure, much less parse out the role of salt compared with other possible factors. “It is still an exciting journey to try to understand this field,” he says.
Additionally, it is difficult to say precisely how this research in animals and human cell cultures will translate into a whole human body. Individual differences in genetics can affect how the body absorbs, transports, and gets rid of sodium, such that some people are more sensitive to salt than are others.
So how should people apply these research findings to daily life?
Salt is obvious when we sprinkle it on at the table or eat tasty things like potato chips, but we may be unaware of sodium hidden in packaged foods. That's because salt is an easy and cheap way to boost the flavor of foods. And if we do read the labeled salt content on a package, we focus on the number for a single serving, but then eat more than that.
Last September, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) began a process to update labels on the content of food, including what is meant by the word “healthy” and how food manufacturers can use the term. Many in the food industry are resisting those proposed changes.
Chandel cautions against trying to counter the effects of salt by reaching for foods or supplements full of antioxidants, which, in theory, could reduce the harmful effects on mitochondria caused by a heavy hand with the salt shaker.
Until labels are updated, it would be prudent to try to reduce sodium intake by cutting down on packaged foods while making your own food at home, where you know just how much salt has been added. The Mayo Clinic offers guidance on how to become more aware of the sodium in your diet and eat less of it.
Chandel thinks many people will struggle with minimizing salt in their diets. It’s similar to the challenge of eating less sugar, in that the body craves both, and it is difficult to fight that. He cautions against trying to counter the effects of salt by reaching for foods or supplements full of antioxidants, which, in theory, could reduce the harmful effects on mitochondria caused by a heavy hand with the salt shaker. “Dietary antioxidants have failed in just about every clinical trial, yet the public continues to take them,” Chandel says. But he is optimistic that research will lead us to a better understanding of how Tregs function, and uncover new targets for treating autoimmune diseases.
In November 2021, Mickayla Wininger’s then one-month-old son, Malcolm, endured a terrifying bout with RSV, the respiratory syncytial (sin-SISH-uhl) virus—a common ailment that affects all age groups. Most people recover from mild, cold-like symptoms in a week or two, but RSV can be life-threatening in others, particularly infants.
Wininger, who lives in southern Illinois, was dressing Malcolm for bed when she noticed what seemed to be a minor irregularity with this breathing. She and her fiancé, Gavin McCullough, planned to take him to the hospital the next day. The matter became urgent when, in the morning, the boy’s breathing appeared to have stopped.
After they dialed 911, Malcolm started breathing again, but he ended up being hospitalized three times for RSV and defects in his heart. Eventually, he recovered fully from RSV, but “it was our worst nightmare coming to life,” Wininger recalled.
It’s a scenario that the federal government is taking steps to prevent. In July, the Food and Drug Administration approved a single-dose, long-acting injection to protect babies and toddlers. The injection, called Beyfortus, or nirsevimab, became available this October. It reduces the incidence of RSV in pre-term babies and other infants for their first RSV season. Children at highest risk for severe RSV are those who were born prematurely and have either chronic lung disease of prematurity or congenital heart disease. In those cases, RSV can progress to lower respiratory tract diseases such as pneumonia and bronchiolitis, or swelling of the lung’s small airway passages.
Each year, RSV is responsible for 2.1 million outpatient visits among children younger than five-years-old, 58,000 to 80,000 hospitalizations in this age group, and between 100 and 300 deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Transmitted through close contact with an infected person, the virus circulates on a seasonal basis in most regions of the country, typically emerging in the fall and peaking in the winter.
In August, however, the CDC issued a health advisory on a late-summer surge in severe cases of RSV among young children in Florida and Georgia. The agency predicts "increased RSV activity spreading north and west over the following two to three months.”
Infants are generally more susceptible to RSV than older people because their airways are very small, and their mechanisms to clear these passages are underdeveloped. RSV also causes mucus production and inflammation, which is more of a problem when the airway is smaller, said Jennifer Duchon, an associate professor of newborn medicine and pediatrics in the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York.
In 2021 and 2022, RSV cases spiked, sending many to emergency departments. “RSV can cause serious disease in infants and some children and results in a large number of emergency department and physician office visits each year,” John Farley, director of the Office of Infectious Diseases in the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, said in a news release announcing the approval of the RSV drug. The decision “addresses the great need for products to help reduce the impact of RSV disease on children, families and the health care system.”
Sean O’Leary, chair of the committee on infectious diseases for the American Academy of Pediatrics, says that “we’ve never had a product like this for routine use in children, so this is very exciting news.” It is recommended for all kids under eight months old for their first RSV season. “I would encourage nirsevimab for all eligible children when it becomes available,” O’Leary said.
For those children at elevated risk of severe RSV and between the ages of 8 and 19 months, the CDC recommends one dose in their second RSV season.
The drug will be “really helpful to keep babies healthy and out of the hospital,” said O’Leary, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus/Children’s Hospital Colorado in Denver.
An antiviral drug called Synagis (palivizumab) has been an option to prevent serious RSV illness in high-risk infants since it was approved by the FDA in 1998. The injection must be given monthly during RSV season. However, its use is limited to “certain children considered at high risk for complications, does not help cure or treat children already suffering from serious RSV disease, and cannot prevent RSV infection,” according to the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases.
Until the approval this summer of the new monoclonal antibody, nirsevimab, there wasn’t a reliable method to prevent infection in most healthy infants.
Both nirsevimab and palivizumab are monoclonal antibodies that act against RSV. Monoclonal antibodies are lab-made proteins that mimic the immune system’s ability to fight off harmful pathogens such as viruses. A single intramuscular injection of nirsevimab preceding or during RSV season may provide protection.
The strategy with the new monoclonal antibody is “to extend protection to healthy infants who nonetheless are at risk because of their age, as well as infants with additional medical risk factors,” said Philippa Gordon, a pediatrician and infectious disease specialist in Brooklyn, New York, and medical adviser to Park Slope Parents, an online community support group.
No specific preventive measure is needed for older and healthier kids because they will develop active immunity, which is more durable. Meanwhile, older adults, who are also vulnerable to RSV, can receive one of two new vaccines. So can pregnant women, who pass on immunity to the fetus, Gordon said.
Until the approval this summer of the new monoclonal antibody, nirsevimab, there wasn’t a reliable method to prevent infection in most healthy infants, “nor is there any treatment other than giving oxygen or supportive care,” said Stanley Spinner, chief medical officer and vice president of Texas Children’s Pediatrics and Texas Children’s Urgent Care.
As with any virus, washing hands frequently and keeping infants and children away from sick people are the best defenses, Duchon said. This approach isn’t foolproof because viruses can run rampant in daycare centers, schools and parents’ workplaces, she added.
Mickayla Wininger, Malcolm’s mother, insists that family and friends wear masks, wash their hands and use hand sanitizer when they’re around her daughter and two sons. She doesn’t allow them to kiss or touch the children. Some people take it personally, but she would rather be safe than sorry.
Wininger recalls the severe anxiety caused by Malcolm's ordeal with RSV. After returning with her infant from his hospital stays, she was terrified to go to sleep. “My fiancé and I would trade shifts, so that someone was watching over our son 24 hours a day,” she said. “I was doing a night shift, so I would take caffeine pills to try and keep myself awake and would end up crashing early hours in the morning and wake up frantically thinking something happened to my son.”
Two years later, her anxiety has become more manageable, and Malcolm is doing well. “He is thriving now,” Wininger said. He recently had his second birthday and "is just the spunkiest boy you will ever meet. He looked death straight in the eyes and fought to be here today.”
Story by Big Think
For most of history, artificial intelligence (AI) has been relegated almost entirely to the realm of science fiction. Then, in late 2022, it burst into reality — seemingly out of nowhere — with the popular launch of ChatGPT, the generative AI chatbot that solves tricky problems, designs rockets, has deep conversations with users, and even aces the Bar exam.
But the truth is that before ChatGPT nabbed the public’s attention, AI was already here, and it was doing more important things than writing essays for lazy college students. Case in point: It was key to saving the lives of tens of millions of people.
AI-designed mRNA vaccines
As Dave Johnson, chief data and AI officer at Moderna, told MIT Technology Review‘s In Machines We Trust podcast in 2022, AI was integral to creating the company’s highly effective mRNA vaccine against COVID. Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech’s mRNA vaccines collectively saved between 15 and 20 million lives, according to one estimate from 2022.
Johnson described how AI was hard at work at Moderna, well before COVID arose to infect billions. The pharmaceutical company focuses on finding mRNA therapies to fight off infectious disease, treat cancer, or thwart genetic illness, among other medical applications. Messenger RNA molecules are essentially molecular instructions for cells that tell them how to create specific proteins, which do everything from fighting infection, to catalyzing reactions, to relaying cellular messages.
Johnson and his team put AI and automated robots to work making lots of different mRNAs for scientists to experiment with. Moderna quickly went from making about 30 per month to more than one thousand. They then created AI algorithms to optimize mRNA to maximize protein production in the body — more bang for the biological buck.
For Johnson and his team’s next trick, they used AI to automate science, itself. Once Moderna’s scientists have an mRNA to experiment with, they do pre-clinical tests in the lab. They then pore over reams of data to see which mRNAs could progress to the next stage: animal trials. This process is long, repetitive, and soul-sucking — ill-suited to a creative scientist but great for a mindless AI algorithm. With scientists’ input, models were made to automate this tedious process.
“We don’t think about AI in the context of replacing humans,” says Dave Johnson, chief data and AI officer at Moderna. “We always think about it in terms of this human-machine collaboration, because they’re good at different things. Humans are really good at creativity and flexibility and insight, whereas machines are really good at precision and giving the exact same result every single time and doing it at scale and speed.”
All these AI systems were in put in place over the past decade. Then COVID showed up. So when the genome sequence of the coronavirus was made public in January 2020, Moderna was off to the races pumping out and testing mRNAs that would tell cells how to manufacture the coronavirus’s spike protein so that the body’s immune system would recognize and destroy it. Within 42 days, the company had an mRNA vaccine ready to be tested in humans. It eventually went into hundreds of millions of arms.
Biotech harnesses the power of AI
Moderna is now turning its attention to other ailments that could be solved with mRNA, and the company is continuing to lean on AI. Scientists are still coming to Johnson with automation requests, which he happily obliges.
“We don’t think about AI in the context of replacing humans,” he told the Me, Myself, and AI podcast. “We always think about it in terms of this human-machine collaboration, because they’re good at different things. Humans are really good at creativity and flexibility and insight, whereas machines are really good at precision and giving the exact same result every single time and doing it at scale and speed.”
Moderna, which was founded as a “digital biotech,” is undoubtedly the poster child of AI use in mRNA vaccines. Moderna recently signed a deal with IBM to use the company’s quantum computers as well as its proprietary generative AI, MoLFormer.
Moderna’s success is encouraging other companies to follow its example. In January, BioNTech, which partnered with Pfizer to make the other highly effective mRNA vaccine against COVID, acquired the company InstaDeep for $440 million to implement its machine learning AI across its mRNA medicine platform. And in May, Chinese technology giant Baidu announced an AI tool that designs super-optimized mRNA sequences in minutes. A nearly countless number of mRNA molecules can code for the same protein, but some are more stable and result in the production of more proteins. Baidu’s AI, called “LinearDesign,” finds these mRNAs. The company licensed the tool to French pharmaceutical company Sanofi.
Writing in the journal Accounts of Chemical Research in late 2021, Sebastian M. Castillo-Hair and Georg Seelig, computer engineers who focus on synthetic biology at the University of Washington, forecast that AI machine learning models will further accelerate the biotechnology research process, putting mRNA medicine into overdrive to the benefit of all.