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October 21, 2014

Learning about the immune system from people who catch germs but don’t get sick.




Mary Mallon was known as “Typhoid Mary”, a woman who was infected and spread the bacteria that caused typhoid fever to others, but showed no symptoms of the disease herself. (From a newspaper article in The New York American dated June 20, 1909)

Studying disease superspreaders. I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

Typhoid Mary was the first known case of what’s known as a superspreader—a person who carries high levels of a pathogen, but has no disease symptoms. According to Stanford immunologist Denise Monack, superspreaders make up 20% of populations, but account for 80% of disease transmission. In the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, she reports that superspreader mice have a unique ability to tolerate disturbances to the microbial ecology of their intestines.

DENISE MONACK (Stanford University):

What we find is that the immune system in these superspreaders is rewired in some way, and it’s making them tolerant to inflammation in the gut.


She says these animals’ unusual immune responses could be a key to understanding and treating a host of illnesses in which the immune system overreacts.  I’m Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.