The University Network

Treatment for Superbug ‘Could Lie Within Our Bodies’ Natural Defenses’

Researchers from Queen’s University Belfast and the University of Vienna have recently discovered that the body’s natural defenses could be used to treat Klebsiella pneumoniae, a bacteria resistant to antibiotics.

The discovery could not have come at a better time, as this week — November 13-19 — is World Antibiotic Awareness Week.

Antibiotic resistance is a growing threat around the world, with an estimated 23,000 American lives and 700,000 lives worldwide lost each year as a result of bacterial infections resistant to current antibiotic treatments. The situation is so dire that in February, the World Health Organization declared an urgent need for new antibiotics to treat 12 families of bacteria, including Klebsiella pneumoniae, that have become increasingly resistant to antibiotics.

Klebsiella is a bacteria that can cause a number of infections, including pneumonia, bloodstream infections, wound or surgical site infections, and meningitis.

Klebsiella pneumoniae is of particular concern as it can cause infections such as bladder infections and pneumonia and has mortality rates of 25-60 per cent,” Professor Jose Bengoechea from the Wellcome-Wolfson Institute for Experimental Medicine at Queen’s University Belfast and one of the lead researchers said in a statement. “Antibiotics that were previously used to treat these infections are no longer effective meaning treatment options for common illnesses are becoming increasingly limited.”

In their study, the researchers found that interferons, or naturally produced signaling proteins found within our bodies, are fighting back against the Klebsiella bacteria.

The research revealed that immune cells arrived at the site of infection to join forces and communicate to eradicate Klebsiella during lung infections.

“This work has uncovered that one family of interferons mediates a cross-talk between two cell types of our immune system (macrophages and natural killer cells) to mediate the production of another member of the interferons family, interferon gamma,” said Bengoechea. “This molecule boosts the activation of several antibacterial mechanisms of our immune system, including phagocytosis of bacteria by macrophages leading to its destruction.”

Instead of targeting the pathogen itself, the research suggests that future therapies to treat Klebsiella may work to target the immune system.

“We might consider using interferons as treatment to boost the activation of our defences,” Bengoechea said. “Interferons are in clinical use for the treatment of other diseases.”

While the discovery may be groundbreaking, the work is still preliminary and the researchers have stressed that further pre-clinical and clinical work is necessary to validate the use of interferons to treat Klebsiella.

“On an age reaching a situation where infections are becoming increasingly difficult to treat, this research opens a hitherto unknown avenue to fight back multidrug resistant infections and emphasizes the importance of fundamental research to tackle the issue of antibiotic resistance,” Bengoechea said.

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The paper was published in PLOSPathogens.

Natalie Colarossi is a journalism major and global studies minor working toward my bachelor's degree at Ohio University. She is from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She has covered a number of topics including art, culture, politics, music, and travel. Her greatest passion and priority is to travel, and she hopes to experience as many places and cultures as possible.