Scientists hope their discovery of how the body fights Salmonella will help in the development of new treatments.
Research reveals blood stem cells respond in the first few hours after infection by acquiring energy from bone marrow support cells.
Salmonella is one of the most common causes of food poisoning worldwide, with symptoms including diarrhoea, vomiting, abdominal pain and fever.
While most people will recover without treatment, the elderly, young children and people with compromised immune systems have a greater risk of becoming severely ill and it can be deadly.
Lead researcher Dr Stuart Rushworth, from the University of East Anglia’s (UEA) Norwich Medical School, said knowing more about how the body responds could help develop new ways to treat people with weak immune systems.
He added: “Our results provide insight into how the blood and immune system is able to respond so quickly to infection.
“Working out the mechanism through which this ‘power boost’ works gives us new ideas on how to strengthen the body’s fight against infection in the future.
“This work could help inform how older people with infection might be treated.
“It is an essential first step towards exploiting this biological function therapeutically in the future.”
Researchers worked with Norwich Research Park colleagues at the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital (NNUH), the Quadram Institute and the Earlham Institute, to study mitochondria – tiny powerhouses that live inside cells and give them energy.
They analysed immune response to Salmonella bacterial infection using blood and bone marrow cells donated for research by NNUH patients.
Scientists looked at the way mitochondria moves between different cell types, in the study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).
They found that the support cells in the bone marrow – where blood cells are made – were forced to transfer their energy to neighbouring blood stem cells.
Dr Rushworth said: “We found that these support cells were effectively ‘charging’ the stem cells and enabling them to make millions more bacteria-fighting white blood cells.
“It was not previously known how blood stem cells acquire the energy they need to mount an immune response to infection.
“Mitochondria are like tiny batteries which power cells.
“In response to infection, the immune system takes mitochondria from surrounding support cells to power up the immune response.”