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Lungs Can 'Taste' Dangerous Bacteria, Researchers Say

The same taste buds we have on the tongue to detect bitterness also exist on lung muscle so that the airways can "taste" dangerous illness-causing bacteria, according to new research published Sunday that could lead to better treatments for respiratory conditions.

When the taste receptors in the lungs detect these bugs that cause pneumonia and other serious infections, the muscle relaxes and the airways expand. This happens, presumably, to allow a person to breathe more easily, and to clear the bacteria and related debris out of the airway to keep the bacteria from progressing to a more serious infection, according to the small but surprising study that appears in the journal Nature Medicine.

Researchers had expected the lung muscle to constrict when the receptors were activated, which would make it harder for the person to breathe and thus let in less of the bacteria. This unexpected relaxation effect suggests that developing drugs to target these taste receptors could lead to more effective treatments of illnesses where airways become inflamed and constrict, such as such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases, said Stephen Liggett, senior author on the study and a professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

Bedrich Mosinger, a taste-receptor researcher at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia who wasn't involved in the study, called the findings "strange and surprising" but plausible. Bitter taste receptors on the tongue alert the brain to the possibility that a poisonous plant, which is often bitter, could be ingested. Finding a taste receptor on muscle deep in an organ is highly unusual, Dr. Mosinger said.
 
 

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