Whenever anyone mentions the word E. coli, it usually has a negative connotation. This bacteria, whose full name is Escherichia coli, has been pinpointed as the cause for many diseases including urinary tract infections, pneumonia and most commonly, food poisoning.
The good news is that E. coli is actually a very diverse species of bacteria and many of them are found naturally occurring in the human digestive system. For centuries, scientists have been fascinated with human gut bacteria, and have isolated thousands of microbial strains, some of which and good, and some bad.
Good gut bacteria are commonly known as Probiotics, and examples of these include the Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria genus which you often see in Probiotic yogurt or milk drinks. They’re extremely useful to the body as they help prevent the overgrowth of bad bacteria in your gut, decreasing diarrhea episodes and other infections.
Just recently, a team of researchers from the National University of Singapore and two hospitals in the US have managed to develop a strain of Probiotic bacteria in the lab that specifically targets one particularly dangerous gut bacteria, called Pseudomonas aeruginosa. This bacteria often causes opportunistic infections, meaning that it takes advantage of poor or suppressed immune systems to proliferate and cause all sorts of uncomfortable and even dangerous symptoms. People with weak immune systems are particularly susceptible to P. aeruginosa, including the elderly, young children, diabetics and those living with HIV/AIDS.
P. aeruginosa is particularly difficult for the human immune system to attack as it forms a thick, mat-like colony known as a biofilm. The bacteria in a biofilm clump together and cover themselves in a thick, mucus-like substance, rendering them inaccessible to our white blood cells. Once our white blood cells are unable to penetrate this protective layer, P. aeruginosa is free to overrun the body.
The research team from NUS, Singapore are therefore developing a strain of E. coli in the lab that can target the protective mucus layers of these biofilms, breaking it down so that the immune system can have a free pathway and access to the bad bacteria. They’ve chosen a strain of E.coli which isn’t infectious or virulent, known as E.coli Nissle 1917.
This particular E. coli strain has an extremely interesting history. It was isolated from the feces of a World War I soldier in 1917 who was the only one that didn’t suffer from a bad bout of bloody diarrhea that affected the rest of his trench mates. It turned out that he had a special strain of E. coli that targeted and prevented the growth of whatever was causing his army mates to suffer.
This is not the first time an E. coli strain has been engineered to fight infection, but this project is special as this is the first time it has been tested in an animal model, in this case, mice. Additionally, researchers also added a special gene into the E. coli Nissle 1917 here to help it detect and directly break down the mucus formed by P. aeruginosa, preventing it from forming the thick and impenetrable biofilm that eludes the immune system.
The project is still in the preliminary stages, as it has only been tested in an animal model, and the researchers are still unsure whether it will work in humans or not. They have expressed their hopes that it will work as the animal trials have been very successful.
These findings provide hope that the biological control of diseases is a viable option as opposed to the current trend of using antibiotics. The widespread use of antibiotics are said to create resistant bacteria, which can potentially cause an untreatable epidemic in the future. There are still plenty of microbes out there, and one may potentially provide a natural rather than synthetic breakthrough in treating diseases.
Gentle reminder: The information on this article is not meant to replace a qualified healthcare professional and should not be considered as professional advice. Please seek appropriate medical help when necessary.