Health Watch -- Bacterial Communication

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Communication may be the key to treating a dangerous bacterial infection.

Raw meat and contaminated fruits and vegetables may sometimes harbor dangerous bacteria, like E. coli. These bacteria infect thousands every year in this country, sometimes causing death. Now a researcher at UT Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas may have found a new way to fight a particularly dangerous strain of E. coli.

Dr. Vanessa Sperandio, a UT Southwestern microbiologist, found that the bacteria travel blindly through the digestive system. When they reach the intestine, chemical signals from the beneficial bacteria that live there and from the hormone epinephrine let the bacteria know where they are. Then they begin to colonize the intestine and send toxins into cells. The result for the bacteria is nourishment. The victims are robbed of nutrients and suffer from bloody diarrhea that can last a week. Some patients develop a secondary syndrome that may cause intestinal bleeding, decreased urine production and anemia.

Based on this new discovery, researchers may be able to develop beta-blocking drugs to fight this kind of E. coli infection. Beta blockers are usually used to fight high blood pressure and migraines. These drugs wouldn't actually attack the bacteria, but rather would keep the bacteria blind so they pass harmlessly through the body.

Developing new treatments for this infection is important because patients treated with antibiotics are at greater risk for developing the secondary syndrome associated with E. coli infection.