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A group of Canadian immunologists have discovered a previously unknown mechanism, which they say acts like a spider web to trap and kill pathogens including influenza or SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Researchers out of McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont. found that neutrophils, the most abundant white blood cells in the human body, “explode” when they bind to these antibody-coated pathogens in the respiratory tract and release DNA outside of the cell, creating a “sticky tangle” that serves as a trap. According to the study, neutrophil extracellular traps (NETs) are also capable of inactivating viruses, similar to that of an antiviral function. The findings were published Tuesday in peer-reviewed journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. The immunologists say the discovery of these NETs is significant as there has been limited prior knowledge of how antibodies neutralize viruses in the respiratory tract. The study noted that NETs have mostly been studied as an antipathogen immune response in the context of bacterial infections, until now.

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