Researchers have found that the key to an inherited genetic deficiency that causes COPD could originate from the Vikings. Archaeological excavations of Viking pits in Denmark have shown that the Vikings used to suffer from massive work infestations. For populations living in these areas their genes developed in such a way as to protect their vital organs from diseases caused by the worms and this same trait can now lead to lung disease in our time.
COPD affects nearly 5% of the global population and the only inherited risk factor is alpha-1-antitrypsin (A1AT), which is compounded if the individual smokes.
A1AT protects the lungs and other organs like the liver from enzymes called proteases. These enzymes are produced by our immune system but also by parasitic worms. If you are deficient in A1AT then these enzymes are then allowed to break down lung tissue, which can lead to COPD.
A1AT deficiency means that you have an altered form or deviant of A1AT and are very common in Scandinavia, where they evolved in Viking populations more than two thousand years ago.
Professor Richard Pleass said: “Vikings would have eaten contaminated food and parasites would have migrated to various organs, including lungs and liver, where the proteases they released would cause disease.”
The deviant forms of A1AT bind to an antibody called Immunoglobulin E (IgE) that prevents the antibody molecule from being broken down by the proteases from the worms. Therefore Viking populations became protected by the deviant forms of A1AT which protected them for the worms.
“Thus these deviant forms of A1AT would have protected Viking populations, who neither smoked tobacco nor lived long lives, from worms.” Continued Professor Pleass, “it is only in the last century that modern medicine has allowed human populations to be treated for disease causing worms. Consequently these deviant forms of A1AT, that once protected people from parasites, are now at liberty to cause emphysema and COPD.”
It has often been wondered how and why A1AT deficiency has occurred and now it seems there are some pieces to the puzzle found among the Vikings. Therefore if you have Viking descendants it could be more possible that you have inherited the trait and have a higher risk of developing COPD. Now that we live longer and some of us smoke this now means that something which developed over generations to protect people from death by worm is now the same factor that causes COPD.