Ebola and the Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) have one thing in common: bats. The animals are the natural hosts of the viruses which cause those deadly diseases.

Now, a team of scientists, led by prominent bat immunologist Dr Michelle Baker, say bats could also hold the key to boost the human immune system. Learning from it could effectively prevent people from developing the illnesses in the first place.

The secret of interferons

The scientists began this research after realizing that even though the bats carried the viruses, they did not show any of the disastrous symptoms seen in humans, displaying a kind of "super immunity". The team thus wanted to understand how the animal immune system managed to fight off the disease and how it could potentially lead to designing an immunity model replicable to humans. They studied the immune system of the Australian black flying fox.

Published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), their findings reveal that this particular bat's immune system differs to that of humans, because it does not release as many types of interferons.

Interferons are proteins created by immune cells in reaction to different pathogens present in the body, whether viruses or bacteria. Scientists have identified three types of interferons in bats, which represents only a quarter of what is released by men.

Working 24/7

While humans immune response only occurs to fight off diseases, scientists were surprised to discover that one type of interferon, alpha, is continuously released by the bat's immune system. "The bats interferon-alpha is constantly 'switched on' acting as a 24/7 front line defence against diseases", Dr Baker said.

"In other mammalian species, having the immune response constantly switched on is dangerous – for example it's toxic to tissue and cells – whereas the bat immune system operates in harmony."

The team now wants their findings to be put into practice, in order to design treatments replicating bat's immunity. If they are successful, it could be an effective new tool to combat endemic diseases, like Ebola, which have claimed so many lives.