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Flesh-eating bacteria escape body's safety net

Researchers at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) School of Medicine have discovered that so-called flesh-eating "Strep" bacteria use a specific enzyme to break free of the body's immune system, a finding which could potentially lead to new treatments for serious infections in human patients.

The research, reported in the February 21, 2006 issue of the journal Current Biology, focuses on the major human pathogen group A Streptococcus. Among the most important of all bacterial pathogens, strep is responsible for a wide range of diseases ?from simple throat and skin infections to life-threatening conditions such as necrotizing fasciitis ("flesh-eating disease") and toxic shock syndrome.

"These findings suggest a novel approach to treating serious Strep infections, such as flesh-eating disease, by assisting our body's own defense system," said senior author Victor Nizet, M.D., UCSD associate professor of pediatrics and an infectious diseases physician at Children's Hospital, San Diego.

The UCSD investigators examined the interaction of Strep bacteria with neutrophils, specialized white blood cells that play a front line role in human's immune defense against pathogenic microbes. Recent research by European investigators had shown that neutrophils are particularly effective defenders because they release "nets" composed of DNA and toxic compounds to entrap and kill invading bacteria. In the current study, the UCSD scientists proved that disease-causing Strep release an enzyme that degrades these DNA nets, thereby allowing the organism to escape the neutrophil net and spread in body tissues.

The UCSD team used a molecular genetic approach for their studies, knocking out the gene encoding the DNA-degrading enzyme from a pathogenic Strep strain that was originally isolated from a patient suffering from necrotizing fasciitis.

"Deprived of this single enzyme, the mutant Strep strain was easily killed by human neutrophils"
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Source:University of California - San Diego


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