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Acupuncture Relieves Sepsis, May Save Thousands in ICU

Update Date: Feb 24, 2014 04:24 PM EST

Acupuncture could help prevent fatal inflammatory disease, according to a new study.

Scientists found a direct link between the ancient Chinese therapy and physical processes that could treat sepsis, a deadly whole-body inflammation caused by severe infection. Researchers said the latest findings are important because sepsis is often seen in patients at hospital intensive care units, and is the cause of death for a quarter million people a year in the United States.

"Sepsis is the major cause of death in the hospital," lead researcher Luis Ulloa, an immunologist at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School said in a news release.

"But in many cases patients don't die because of the infection. They die because of the inflammatory disorder they develop after the infection. So we hoped to study how to control the inflammatory disorder," he added.

Previous studies reveal that stimulation of one of the body's major nerves, the vagus nerve, triggers bodily processes that reduce inflammation. Ulloa and his team wanted to see whether a modern form of acupuncture, which sends small electric currents to magnify the effect of needle placements, helps reduce inflammation and organ injury.

The study revealed that electroacupuncture helped limit inflammation in mice with sepsis. They found that the therapy help stimulate molecules called cytokines that help appease inflammation. Researchers noted that half of mice treated with electroacupuncture survived for at least a week. However, there was zero survival among mice that did not get the treatment.

Further analysis showed that electroacupuncture produced specific anatomical changes that increased levels of dopamine, a substance that has important functions within the immune system. However, researchers found that adding dopamine itself did not lower inflammation. Researchers then gave mice a drug called fenoldopam that mimics some of dopamine's most positive effects, and found that the drug helped reduce sepsis-related deaths by 40 percent even without acupuncture.

Researchers said the latest findings reveal the value of acupuncture. Ulloa believes that acupuncture may help treat sepsis and other inflammatory diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis and Crohn's disease.

The findings also suggests that fenoldopam can help treat sepsis. This is important because there are no FDA-approved drugs to treat sepsis. Researchers believe the latest findings provide important insight into the development of potential drugs for treating the deadly condition.

The findings are published in the journal Nature Medicine.

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