The fight against harmful bacteria wages on — this time at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD). In fact, researchers might have found a way to disable one of the most dangerous forms of bacteria known to humankind — streptococci.
Bacteria — these tiny microorganisms are everywhere; in the soil, air, water, plants, animals. . . and in our bodies. Some are essential for our good health — like the ones you find in yogurt — and some are bad, making us very sick if they get past our defenses.
Any bacterium belonging to the streptococcus family falls into the latter category. Streptococci bacteria can be found on your skin or in your throat, and don’t always bring on symptoms. Spread by contact with an infected person, this type of bacterium, known as ‘group A strep,’ could cause a wide range of infections, from mild to severe.
Usually, such an infection will manifest as a sore throat or a relatively mild skin infection, which are both treatable with antibiotics. In extreme cases, the strep bacteria can cause toxic shock, bloodstream infections, or the dreaded flesh- eating disease.
Although rare, all of these last three conditions are very dangerous and they are fast acting. To give you an idea, let’s look at the flesh-eating disease. It is an infection caused by the most lethal strain of group A strep. The bacteria usually enter your body through some kind of wound, such as a cut or scrape, and make their way down to the deep layers of your tissue.
Unlike other forms of strep, this strain starts releasing a toxic substance that eats away at your flesh and muscle. This process can occur so quickly that it’s hard to stop. Unfortunately, doctors might have to remove a portion of tissue or even a limb in order to stop the spread of this aggressive form of strep.
The purpose of this description wasn’t to frighten you, but rather to underline the importance of the discovery made by the UCSD researchers.
The scientists have recently discovered just how the strep bacteria get past the immune system defenses so easily. But before we get into the findings, first we have to understand a little bit about how the immune process works.
When unwelcome bacteria enter the body, specialized white blood cells called “neutrophils” trap and kill them with nets made of DNA and certain toxic compounds. The diabolical streptococci seem to have found a way around this defense mechanism. When they encounter these nets, the group A strep bacterium can break them down with the release of a certain enzyme, thus remaining free to spread throughout the body, starting the whole infection process.
However, once the UCSD researchers figured out how strep breaks through the defensive net, they were able to knock out the gene that created this enzyme within the bacteria. Without the enzyme, the group A strep bacterium were captured and destroyed by the neutrophils without any hitch, effectively stopping the infection in its tracks.
With this amazing discovery, we could soon be able to treat strep infections without resorting to antibiotics or surgery.
Now, that’s progress!