| Scientists Discover Potential New Way to Control Drug-Resistant Bacteria
Based on an improved understanding of bacteriophages — viruses
that infect bacteria — scientists reporting in the Sept. 23
issue of the journal Nature believe they have discovered a potential
new way to control drug-resistant bacteria, an increasingly worrisome
public health problem.
The new research, funded by the National Institute of Allergy and
Infectious Diseases (NIAID), part of the National Institutes of
Health, found that bacteriophages contain genes that allow them
to quickly change their proteins to bind to different cell receptors.
The researchers, who encountered this genetic property while working
on an unrelated project, believe that this discovery could lead
to the use of genetically engineered phages to treat bacterial infections
that have become resistant to antibiotics.
“This serendipitous finding underscores the importance of
basic research,” says Anthony S. Fauci, M.D., director of
NIAID. “With our increased understanding of how bacteriophages
work, we can potentially tailor these viruses to infect and destroy
bacteria that have mutated and become drug-resistant.”
“This powerful and innovative research opens up numerous possibilities
for developing drugs and vaccines that can control resistant bacteria,
which are a growing public health concern,” says David L.
Klein, Ph.D., who oversees bacterial respiratory disease research
at NIAID. “The introduction of bacteriophages may also lead
to a unique approach against biodefense-related pathogens.”
The discovery was made by researchers at the University of California
Los Angeles led by Jeffery F. Miller, Ph.D., professor and chair
of microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics. Dr. Miller’s team found that the genome of the phage that
infects Bordetella bronchiseptica, a relative of the bacterium that
causes whooping cough, contains a series of genes that change the
part of the virus that binds to the bacterial cell. These genes
allow the phage to rapidly evolve new variants that can recognize
and attack bacteria that may have become resistant to the previous
“Phage therapy has been practiced for nearly a hundred years
in parts of the world, and even in the United States in the first
half of the 20th century,” says Dr. Miller. “But now
we think we can engineer bacteriophages to function as 'dynamic'
anti-microbial agents. This could provide us with a renewable resource
of smart antibiotics for treating bacterial diseases.”
Dr. Miller says that he and his team are continuing to study this
genetic mechanism to learn more about its biochemical properties
and to determine whether higher forms of life have similar classes
of genes. He believes that, in time, they will be able to use the
knowledge gleaned from this discovery to generate proteins in the
laboratory that will bind to almost any molecule of interest.
NIAID is a component of the National Institutes of Health, an
agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. NIAID
supports basic and applied research to prevent, diagnose and treat
infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted
infections, influenza, tuberculosis, malaria and illness from potential
agents of bioterrorism. NIAID also supports research on transplantation
and immune-related illnesses, including autoimmune disorders, asthma
and allergies. News releases, fact sheets and other NIAID-related
materials are available on the NIAID Web site at http://www.niaid.nih.gov.
Reference: J F Miller et al. Tropism switching in Bordetella bacteriophage
defines a family of diversity-generating retroelements. Nature 431: