Teamwork and communication are key to approaching any project. The same is true for bacteria that want to launch successful infections. A study from the University of Minnesota presents a way to disturb bacterial communication to reduce the frequency and severity of infections.
A common type of pneumonia-causing bacterium that relies heavily on communication is Pseudomonas aeruginosa. It waits stealthily in the body, emitting signals to its friends to give each bacterium a chance to gauge how many are present. When there are enough to temporarily overwhelm the immune system, they strike, invading lung cells and forming a bacterial community known as a biofilm. Biofilms are particularly threatening because they allow the bacteria to pool their defenses, making them invulnerable to both the immune system and most every antibiotic.
“Pseudomonas aeruginosa is the main opportunistic pathogen in hospitals, so when you have an injury or are very weak, this is the guy that will get you,” says Mikael Elias, assistant professor in the department of Biochemistry, Molecular Biology and Biophysics. “Because it can be totally resistant to all antibiotics that we know, it can become an incurable infection. There is a need for alternative or complementary strategies to antibiotic treatment,” he elaborates in a recent UMN news release.
Photo of Professor Elias taken by Josh Kohanek. © 2015. Regents of the University of Minnesota. Photos and images used with permission.
Fortunately, Elias and his team discovered that an enzyme called lactonase breaks down the bacterial signaling molecule. In the lab, the bacteria had a much more difficult time creating biofilms in the presence of the enzyme. In live tests, a group of rats infected with pneumonia recovered from the disease after inhaling lactonase. The number of bacteria in the lungs of the rats who survived pneumonia versus those who didn’t was identical, implying that lactonase was not killing the bacteria, merely reducing their efficacy.
The team is now moving forward to try and put the enzyme to use. “We are working towards the development of enzyme-based inhalers, that could be used once a day or a few times a week, as a preventive strategy,” says Elias. He also envisions using the enzyme on medical devices such as catheters or Band-Aids.
This study was funded by grants from the NIH and NSF. The University of Minnesota boasts a $830 million research and development marketplace fueled by studies like this one. For more information about grants and funding for UMN, read our free University of Minnesota Funding Statistics Report accessible via the link below.
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