Bioethics Blogs

Feed a Virus, Starve a Bacterium?


Yes, the season of colds and flu is coming. You’ve probably heard the old saying “feed a cold and starve a fever.” But is that sound advice? According to new evidence from mouse studies, there really may be a scientific basis for “feeding” diseases like colds and flu that are caused by viruses, as well as for “starving” certain fever-inducing conditions caused by bacteria.

In the latest work, an NIH-funded research team found that providing nutrition to mice infected with the influenza virus significantly improved their survival. In contrast, the exact opposite proved true in mice infected with Listeria, a fever-inducing bacterium. When researchers forced Listeria-infected mice to consume even a small amount of food, they all died.

Just like humans, when mice and other mammals come down with many infectious illnesses, they often lose their appetites and shun food. In the new study reported in the journal Cell, a team led by Ruslan Medzhitov, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator at Yale University School of Medicine, New Haven, CT, and former Lurie Prize winner from the Foundation for NIH, set out to explore how the presence or lack of nutrition might influence recovery from infections [1].

In one series of experiments, the researchers infected mice with the influenza virus, which caused potentially life-threatening bouts of the flu. As expected from past observations, the flu-sickened mice reduced their food intake. However, when the researchers pumped more nutrition into some of the sick mice via tube feeding, their odds of survival were significantly better than those who weren’t given the extra nutrition.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.