Spelunking to the Source of the Superbug

Lechuguilla Cave located in New Mexico has been reported as a site of anti-biotic resistant bacteria.  This cave is one of the most isolated caves in the world, and the finding of these mutated bacteria could mean big things for the fight against the “superbug”.

Researchers from McMaster and the University of Akron have recently discovered the foreign strains of bacteria within the Lechuguilla Cave.  These bacteria do not cause human disease; however, when exposed to antibiotics that physicians use to treat the common bacteria in hospitals, the new cave bacteria were still resistant.

So what does this all mean?

Gerry Wright, the director of Michael G. DeGroote Institute for Infectious Disease Research explained to  Science Daily. “Our study shows that antibiotic resistance is hard-wired into bacteria. It could be billions of years old, but we have only been trying to understand it for the last 70 years. This has important clinical implications. It suggests that there are far more antibiotics in the environment that could be found and used to treat currently untreatable infections.”

Certain strains of Staphylococcus are known as “superbugs”, a multi-drug resistant bacteria that physicians have trouble treating in hospitals.  How these superbugs are becoming resistant to so many different types of antibiotics has been a topic of microbiology research for about the past 70 years.  A large problem with these bugs is that when it comes to treating them, the physicians have to resort to removing the infected tissue. As most would assume, this is not the ideal way to treat these pesky infections.

Lechuguilla Cave was the perfect environment for researchers to have exposure to bacteria that have not been exposed to the antibiotics that flow freely throughout or environment.  The cave is a concealed place, so although the bacteria do not cause harm to humans, they are still changing and becoming resistant to the antibiotics that are used in treatments.

Wright told Science Daily “The actual source of much of this resistance is harmless bacteria that live in the environment.”

Finding these bacteria within this cave give researchers a new light on why and how these bacteria are becoming resistant to antibiotics and that there may be more antibiotics that nature is providing us that we have not honed into yet.




Kirandeep Bhullar, Nicholas Waglechner, Andrew Pawlowski, Kalinka Koteva, Eric D. Banks, Michael D. Johnston, Hazel A. Barton, Gerard D. Wright. Antibiotic Resistance Is Prevalent in an Isolated Cave Microbiome. PLoS ONE, 2012; 7 (4): e34953 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0034953

McMaster University. “Key to new antibiotics could be deep within isolated cave.” ScienceDaily, 11 Apr. 2012. Web. 12 Apr. 2012.

Recently discovered protein shows promise in treating Alzheimer’s diesease

New research in humans shows that the FKBP52 protein may prevent the Tau protein from turning pathogenic, or from causing disease.  

The FKBP52 protein was discovered by Baulieu 20 years ago in its ability to block Tau protein accumulation, which is commonly seen in Alzheimer’s disease (AD)patients. Microtubules are the railways in the brain upon which cellular cargo is transported. In patients with AD, tau tangles formed by misfolded tau proteins may compromise the stability of the microtubules within the nerve cells leaving them damaged. Currently, the mechanism of Tau toxicity is unclear and there are no drug treatments targeting Tau.

Professor Etienne Baulieu and colleagues at Inserm (National Institute for medical research in France) have recently published results that for the first time demonstrate that the FKBP52 protein may prevent hyperphosphorylation, or over accumulation of Tau protein, a characteristic of Alzheimer’s disease.

Specifically, the results of this study demonstrate a direct correlation between high levels of hyperphosphorylated Tau protein and reduced levels of FKBP52, in brain cells from patients that had died following AD, compared to normal brain cells. This indicates that when FKBP52 is reduced in nerve cells of AD patients, disease causing Tau is free to accumulate and contribute to the degeneration of brain cells.

IOS Press BV (2012, March 20). New hope for treating Alzheimer’s Disease: A Role for the FKBP52 protein. ScienceDaily. Retrieved April 5, 2012, from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/03/120320195338.htm     
Julien Giustiniani, Marlène Sineus, Elodie Sardin, Omar Dounane, Maï Panchal, Véronique Sazdovitch, Charles Duyckaerts, Béatrice Chambraud, Etienne-Emile Baulieu. Decrease of the Immunophilin FKBP52 Accumulation in Human Brains of Alzheimer’s Disease and FTDP-17. Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, Volume 29, issue 2 (March 2012) [link]


The Sailor’s Life for Me… Except for the Food

Analyses of bone confirms 18th century naval diet, deployment

English archaeologists have confirmed long held beliefs about sailors’ diets in the Royal Navy in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Chemical analysis of hundreds of bones revealed considerable consistency with what contemporary naval documents proscribed for meals at sea, as well as with diet of British sailors from 1545, released from the American Journal of Physical Anthropology online earlier this month.

The research team, from Oxford, Cranfield University, and the Ecole Normal Superieure in Paris, performed an isotope analysis on over 80 individuals from two English naval cemeteries. They contained the remains of seriously ill and mortally wounded servicemen who fought in the Napoleonic wars and the War of 1812. While historians have long written about the naval diet so short of veggies, the lead researcher, Prof. Mark Pollard, said that the findings “demonstrate the benefit of using forensic methods to complement documentary records.”

The Royal Navy’s Victualling Board rationed each sailor 7 lbs bread, 7 gal beer, 4 lbs beef, 2 lbs pork, 1 qt peas, 3 pts oatmeal, 12 ozs cheese and 6 ozs of butter every week. The more time one of the studies’ skeletons’ spent in His Majesty’s service, the more the nitrogen and carbon content of their bones would reflect this carefully measured diet, something Pollard calls the “naval average.”

Pollard and his team took small samples of bone – from ribs, teeth, and thighbones – and analyzed their stable isotope composition. These are types of carbon and nitrogen that don’t decay over time (as would occur with C14 dating). Different ratios reflect the sources of peoples’ nutrients because wheat and corn (the most common feed for livestock and ingredient in beer, bread, etc.) fix different carbons in photosynthesis. Scientists measure the levels of those carbons in bone and compare the ratios to determine which plant played a bigger role in diet.

Stable isotope analysis is incredibly useful outside of historic situations. It can be used to track the spread of agriculture in the Americas and in China, and readily distinguishes between populations that prefer one type of plant to another.

The study used these distinctions to also explore the similarities between British sailors, Native American soldiers, 17th century plantation workers, and 18th century slaves from Barbados. The British sailors’ isotope ratios formed a distinct group from the Americans, but those from Plymouth cemetery, where the sailors had toured off the coast of North America, indicated a higher C4 (that’s the corn carbon fixation pathway). Either the sailors traded food from the local area to liven up their meals, as was customary, or at least one of the sailors was actually from North America. Perhaps this unlucky fellow, named Sk 844, was impressed into the Royal Navy in the early 1800s – a practice that was also customary and which eventually contributed to the War of 1812.

Check out the Press Release from AAAS here (under March 23), and try this Blog for another take on this study.

Text Message From: Neighboring Bacteria

As means of communication increase between humans, such as text messaging and social media, bacteria and potentially human cells are communicating with each other to come up with a plan of action.  Researchers at Rice and Tel Aviv University have been investigating the pathways in which these cells communicate information about cell stress, the colony density, and possible plans of neighboring cells.  Research in this area could result in many medical applications.

José Onuchi, Ph. D., explained to Science Daily that “Using this form of cell-to-cell communication, colonies of billions or trillions of bacteria can literally reach a consensus on actions that impact people.”

Onuchi gave an example of a group of harmless bacteria gathering on the skin.  These bacteria may one day send chemical signals to each other and decide that there are enough of them to join together and cause an infection.  This network of infection causing bacteria is known as a biofilm. Biofilms are responsible for making many chronic diseases difficult to treat.  Urinary tract infections and cystic fibrosis are two examples of biofilms forming and causing treatment difficulties.

Bacillus subtilis has been the focus of the research to try to understand this network of communication.  B. subtilis is a bacterium found in the soil and responds to stressful environmental conditions by either turning themselves into spores or transforming into a competency state, which is protective state that won’t be harmed by the outside conditions. These two states allow the bacteria to survive in harsh or stressful situations.  In the spore state the bacteria discard half of their DNA into the environment and create a thick armor like shell that allows them to survive for years, but they are able to return to  normal bacteria.  The competency state is more for short term stressful situations. The risk with the competency state is if the conditions don’t improve quickly the bacterium could die before being able to change into a spore.

Onuchi explained that most bacteria will become spores in poor environmental conditions but about 1-2%  “see” that the other bacteria are becoming spores and choose to take some of their discarded DNA and enter competency.

Onuchi believes that the bacteria make their decisions on “game theory”, which is a concept used in math to analyze conflict and cooperation.  Onuchi explained to Science Daily “…the bacteria have to weigh the pros and cons of their decisions. The bacteria make a decision based not only on what it knows about its own stress and environment, but it also has to think about what the other bacteria might do.”

So how can research on bacteria living in the soil and their communication and decision making processes benefit the human population in anyway?  One answer: cancer treatment.

As the research progresses with the bacteria , human cells are becoming the main focus.  Onuchi is specifically looking at communication that could result in uncontrolled division and growth, AKA the cause of cancer.  One of the main causes of cancer is just that, the uncontrolled division and growth of cells.  The current thought is that similarly to the bacteria discussed earlier, the human cells may be chit-chatting amongst themselves and sending chemical signals to one another that cause the cancer to grow. Not only could this be the starting point of cancer, but could also explain the spreading of cancer to other parts of the body, also known as metastasis.

Onuchi described the medical treatment benefits of identifying this process to Science Daily.

“It would open the door to developing better drugs that have fewer side effects. For example, once we get a handle on this process, we might block the specific chemical messages that signal a tumor to grow, developing a medicine that wouldn’t affect other body processes, reducing or eliminating side effects.”

The researchers are hopeful, but like most growing areas of science, cannot make any promises based on their research.  The identifying of the possibility of this communication pathway and understanding the complexities of the bacteria communication is key, however, in starting the in depth look at human cells.



American Chemical Society (ACS). “Bacteria use chat to play the ‘prisoner’s dilemma’ game in deciding their fate.” ScienceDaily, 27 Mar. 2012. Web. 29 Mar. 2012.

New funding in Texas causes step forward in stem cell therapy

Although it seems many of us are feeling the burn of the less-than-fantastic economy at the current moment, the state of Texas has been “pouring millions” into furthering stem cell research and treatment options.  Much excitement has been happening in the area of stem cell research, and for those who have the cash to spare, doctors in Texas are even administering unproven stem cell treatments to patients who have the desire and money to do so.   Although the US FDA has not approved any type of stem cell treatment for routine clinical use, it does allow patients whom are entered into clinical trials to be treated with it.  All sorts of people have been lining up to get a chance to try out this tantalizingly new treatment option. Even Texas governor Rick Perry underwent stem cell injections to help his back pain issues.

Celltex Therapeutics, in particular, is a company that benefited from this increase in funding.  This company creates and stores copies of stem cells that are obtained from a patient’s own fat tissues.  Celltex Therapeutics which opened just outside Houston in December 2011, is called the “largest stem cell bank in the United States” by it’s chief executive David Eller.

Doctor Jamshid Lotfi, a physician in Texas who treats willing patients with stem cell therapy, says in response to patients’ claims of feeling improved after treatment, that “the scientific mind is not convinced by anecdotal evidence”.  He adds that one would need a “controlled, double blind study” in order to accurately test whether or not the treatment is doing any good.  That being said, he still continues to treat patients whom have the desire (and dollars) with stem cell injections should they request the procedure be done.

Nevertheless, this is a step in the right direction for stem cell treatment and therapy options.  It is important to get stem cells, and therapy using stem cells into our everyday thoughts, conversations, and vocabulary.  When the general public become more accepting to this type of treatment, it may be possible for stem cell treatment to be expanded further, and to explore it’s options to a far greater capacity than what is being done now.

Hopefully this new burst of energy and excitement in Texas will catch on in other areas of the United States to give scientists more opportunity to work on this thrilling line of research.

For more information go to Nature Magazine Online 29 February 2012

Babies (back) on board? Possibly so!

Calling all women! If you have experienced fertility troubles, listen up! The New York Times published in late February 2012 that researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital have done what was “inconceivable less than 10 years ago,” says Dr. Jonathan L. Tilly, leader of the research team at MGH. The team extracted stem cells from the ovaries of female subjects, and created, what appear to be, viable human egg cells. Though relatively early in the study, if this advance in stem cell research proves to be feasible, it could suggest a new means of acquiring eggs to treat women who suffer from infertility.

Unlike men, who have the capacity to produce new sperm throughout their whole life, women are born with the finite amount of eggs they will have until they die. The recent findings from the team at MGH, and the ability to isolate stem cells then create workable eggs could mean new possibilities for women seeking fertility treatment.

This news is not to be taken without a word of caution, however. David Albertini, from the Kansas University Medical Center, who was not involved with this experiment, commented on this research. Although the findings are a major accomplishment, Albertini states that “none of the criteria” he or his colleagues use to “establish that a cell is a high-quality oocyte are satisfied” by Dr Tilly’s findings. In other words, while Dr. Albertini agrees that the findings are exciting, he doesn’t believe Dr. Tilly’s findings are reflective of an actual unfertilized egg, but rather eggs that might not be equal to a real, human egg. Additionally, Dr Albertini will remain skeptical of Dr. Tilly’s research findings until other scientists have been able to replicate his findings.

With time, we will be able to see what becomes of the findings from the researchers at MGH. If other scientists are able to replicate their findings, it could be a major step forwards in the area of stem cell research. Should this work prove to ultimately be successful, it could aid biologists’ in their understanding of how various types of drugs and nutrition affect egg cells. These are just a few examples of the various ways that the stem cell research could aid the lives of many. With any luck, the findings from MGH could mean a break though in one of the most intriguing lines of biological study: stem cells. Keep your fingers crossed!



Evolution Escorts Evasion

Streptococcus pneumonia, known for causing serious diseases including meningitis and pneumonia is known for causing approximately 14.5 million serious cases, and close to 826,000 deaths a year in children under the age of 5.   Thankfully, the production of PCV7 pneumococcal vaccine occurred in 2000 in the United States.

S. pneumonia comes in over ninety different serotypes.  Serotypes are different kinds of the bacteria that are identified and characterized by the substance coating the outside of the bacteria, known as the polysaccharide.  The PCV7 vaccination targeted 7 of the serotypes and resulted in a high successful lowering of young children being infected or killed by these diseases.  However, similarly to the evolution of the popular “staph” or MRSA infection, these targeted 7 serotypes are starting to manipulate their outer coatings and able to evade the vaccine.

Researchers at the University of Oxford and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have been trying to identify how these serotypes were able to evolve in such a way that they could escape being targeted by the PCV7 vaccination.

As quoted on Science Daily, Dr Rory Bowden, from the University of Oxford, gave an excellent explanation on how these bacteria were able to escape the vaccination.

“Imagine that each strain of the pneumococcus bacteria is a class of schoolchildren, all wearing the school uniform. If a boy steals from his corner shop, a policeman — in this case the vaccine — can easily identify which school he belongs to by looking at his uniform. But if the boy swaps his sweater with a friend from another school, the policemen will no longer be able to recognize him and he can escape. This is how the pneumococcus bacteria evade detection by the vaccine.”

The researchers found that the bacteria were exchanging the specific part of their genome, which can be considered the blue print for the bacteria, that described the polysaccharide outer coating conformation with another serotype of the bacteria that was not targeted by the PCV7 vaccine. As you can only imagine, this causes the vaccines to not affect these deadly bacteria.  The trading of these two areas of the genome is known as recombination.

So what’s the game plan? If one of the original 7 targeted serotypes can change its outer coating to disguise itself and escape the vaccine, what’s to say that the other 6 serotypes won’t just follow in the footsteps of the original sneaky serotype?

A vaccine has been developed that now targets 13 serotypes of the pneumococcus bacteria.  For the time being, this vaccine has been successful in being able to prevent young children from being infected by this harmful, sometimes deadly, strain of bacteria.  It’s hard to believe that a cell that doesn’t even contain a nucleus or DNA may be out-smarting a complex organism such as us, but there is clear proof right in front of our eyes.

Researchers recognize that although this vaccine is currently efficient, it will continue to develop and further research is going into seeing how these intelligent buggers evolve and escape vaccines.

Budget Likely to be Pulled for Stem Cell Research in California

Learning to do more with less: California Institute for Regenerative Medicine must face the future of its success without state funded support

It seems despite the famous words “mo money, mo problems” from the well-known (and loved) 1997 hip-hop song by Biggie Smalls, the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine in San Francisco is dealing with the opposite situation. They have less money than ever before, and experiencing many, many more problems.

Half of the 3 billion dollars given to the institution from the state of California has been spent, and the other half is expected to dry up by as early as 2021.  It doesn’t look like CIRM will be getting any more money from California either. Jonathan Thomas, the chairman for CIRM has been quoted to say that the institute would be “premature to even consider” receiving any funding from the state in the future.  This, of course, is ominous news for scientists and researchers hoping to make significant breakthroughs in stem cell research during the upcoming years. At the end of the day, no money, mean means no research.  And no research could mean big problems.

With the general economy of the many states in the US in an unfortunate condition, budget cuts must be made. California is no different.  Many residents of the state feel that with several pressing matters to deal with, spending a few billion dollars to support stem cell research is not at the top of their priority list.

In spite of what the public may think, scientists at CIRM have not been sitting idly in the eight years since it was founded.  They have been busy constructing new bindings and labs, training staff, and staring numerous research projects.  Despite all of their efforts, it would be near impossible for the scientists at CIRM to give a single solid example of a fully proven research answer that has arisen in the last eight years.  Much of their findings are preliminary and many others aren’t ready for human trials yet.

It is important to keep in perspective that breaking new ground in the scientific field takes time as well as patience, and that “pulling the plug” so to speak, on stem cell research will do more than retard the progress in that field in the United States- it will essentially stop it completely.  Many other scientific institutes including the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute do not support embryonic stem cell research.  Therefore, if the state chooses to no longer fund stem cell research at CIRM, it is highly unlikely they will find funding anywhere other than private sources.

All scientists ask of the public is for patience and a bit of funding.  What could have become of world travel if the Wright brothers gave up on their airplane models halfway through their trials? Where would we be now if Thomas Edison had thrown in the towel after a few failed attempts at the light bulb seemed to be too expensive a task to keep working on? If Watson and Crick weren’t as patient as they were during their time making the first DNA model, would the modern age of genetics have occurred at all?

So many technological advances in science today that we take for granted are a direct result of long years of effort on the part of the scientists working on the experiments.  The most we can do as members of the public is to provide the funding necessary to upkeep the scientists and their experiments, and give a little patience to allow them to get the work done.   Do these two things, and I am quite sure we will have an amazing breakthrough waiting for us in the line of stem cell research.



Ultrasound could be new form of male birth control

Men have been offered few options for birth control compared to what is available for women.  But new research is leading doctors to believe that with two 15-minute sessions with an ultrasound, men could have up to two and a half months of protection.

The procedure works because of the testes need to remain at a certain temperature.  This has spawned jokes about hot tubs and laptop computers affecting sperm count – which is partially true.  Men with already low sperm counts can be pushed farther if exposed to these sources of heat, but what if the heat was focused and enhanced?

Ultrasounds (not the kind to see babies) have been used to treat injured joints the  by increasing circulation for years now, and are common in therapists offices.  In a current study using rats, two 15-minutes ultrasound sessions two days apart have given 2.5 months, and possibly longer lasting results.  This study, taking place at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill headed by Dr. James Tsuruta, is the first serious study of this procedure, although evidence of the idea has been floating around for over three decades.

This new option for birth control comes to the relief of couples who are looking for added security to condoms or for men who want to relieve their female partners of the birth-control burden.  In addition to the temporary birth control, ultrasounds could be used for sterilization, providing a non-surgical alternative to vasectomy, which may be more appealing.  Additionally, the procedure could be used to help with stray dog sterilization in places with problem populations.

The downside of this procedure is that it requires multiple sessions and requires men to return every two or three months.  There is no guarantee that men would show up for the second session and in developing countries two or three months is a short amount of time to ask people to come for treatment again.

Many men are eager to see if the ultrasound method will be effective, but researchers are asking for them to not get their hopes up.  While the studies so far seem promising, there will still have to be many trials to see how well this works in humans and if there are any long term fertility effects that have not been observed yet.  Only time, and more studies, will tell, but men, cross your fingers.


Original article found here.

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