There may be a new superhero on the horizon.
New research published today in the journal Science states scientists may have discovered a “superhero bacteria” to combat antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
Oddly enough, the superhero bacteria is in the same family as the ones often responsible for large-scale food poisoning outbreaks.
The discovery is considered important because infections from drug-resistant bacteria, dubbed “superbugs,” are becoming more common each year.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that these bugs are responsible for more than 2 million infections a year, 23,000 of them being fatal.
As bacteria come into contact with modern antibiotics, they develop defenses against them, making even the strongest drugs on the market useless against them.
Researchers the world over have been scrambling to develop new treatments to outsmart them.
Bacterial Protection from Bacteria
Scientists at the Salk Institute for Biological Sciences in La Jolla, California, say they found a strain of E. coli in mice that helps the animals survive life-threatening infections.
The bacteria live in the guts of certain mice. Researchers noted this was the key to the animals surviving infections in the lungs and intestines.
“Treatments for infection have long focused on eradicating the offending microbe, but what actually kills people aren't the bacteria themselves. It's the collateral damage it does to the body,” the study’s senior researcher Janelle Ayres, Ph.D., a Salk assistant professor in the Nomis Foundation Laboratories for Immunobiology and Microbial Pathogenesis, said in a press release.
That collateral damage is wasting, or a loss of muscle tissue that occurs in serious infections. Similar to how an AIDS patient’s body becomes so weak it can’t fight off the common cold, once our bodies have been taxed in responding to major infections, they can no longer fight it effectively.
By finding a way to prevent this kind of damage, researchers say they may be able to stave off the most life-threatening aspects of an infection.
The Salk researchers found a group of lab mice that didn’t experience muscle wasting. Inside their intestinal microbiome — the flora of bacteria that live inside our guts and help with digestion, immunity, and more — researchers identified a strain of E. coli not present in the other mice.
When they gave these normal mice the same strain of E. coli, the mice were able to maintain muscle and fat when infected with Salmonella typhimurium and Burkholderia thailandensis, the latter of which causes pneumonia.
Upon further examination, the Salk team discovered that during an infection, the good guy E. coli navigated from the gut and settled into the fat tissues and nourished muscles by activating insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1). This hormone helps signal the body to retain muscle mass.
By doing this, the E. coli helped trigger inflammation at the point of infection to destroy the bad bacteria.
Will E. coli Help Protect People from Superbugs?
Ayres says it’s a bit too early to speculate whether this type of “superhero” bacteria would help humans, but she and her team are also beginning to examine whether such a microbe exists in humans.
“There's a lot we still need to understand, but this is a very promising sign that microbes might be used as medicine,” Ayres said.
One added benefit to this potential treatment is that it wouldn’t contribute to the continuing rise of drug-resistant bacteria. How? Because the treatment wouldn’t be trying to kill the pathogen. Therefore, it’s not giving the bacteria a chance to evolve around the treatment.
“We might be able to fight superbugs with ‘superhero’ bugs,” Ayres said. “It may offer an entirely new avenue for treatment of infections, even those that are antibiotic resistant, while also preventing the rise of new resistant strains.”
Fighting antibiotic-resistant pathogens with pathogens is nothing new in microbiology.
In 2013, a research team from Rockefeller University announced they may have found a way to use viruses against bacteria, including methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus and Bacillus anthracis, the bacteria that causes anthrax.
Epimerox, the new broad-spectrum antibiotic that uses this biological hack, is being developed by the Rockefeller team and Astex Pharmaceuticals.