Superbug Sleuths

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UB researchers are on the trail of a deadly pathogen.

Imagine a bacterium that attacks even healthy people, causing blindness in one day and flesh-eating infections, brain abscesses and death in just a few days. Now imagine that this pathogen is also resistant to all antibiotics—and is virtually unidentifiable.

Thanks to University at Buffalo researchers, a first step toward defeating such a nightmare pathogen is being taken.

Thomas A. Russo, professor of medicine in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at UB, and his colleagues have discovered several biomarkers that can accurately identify hypervirulent Klebsiella pneumoniae. Such biomarkers should help scientists distinguish the hypervirulent pathogen from the classical, less virulent strains of K. pneumoniae.

“Currently, there is no commercially available test to accurately distinguish classical from hypervirulent strains,” says Russo, who heads the Division of Infectious Diseases in the Department of Medicine. “This research provides a clear roadmap as to how a company can develop such a test for use in clinical laboratories. It’s sorely needed.”

Infecting the healthy

Russo explains that both kinds of K. pneumoniae can be deadly, but the classical strains are more likely to infect patients with underlying disease, or who are immune-compromised and hospitalized.

By contrast, hypervirulent strains can infect healthy, young people, causing sudden, life-threatening complications; these range from liver or brain abscesses to flesh-eating infections. While they’re currently less likely to be antibiotic resistant, these strains continue to evolve.

“What’s increasingly concerning is the growing number of reports that describe strains of hypervirulent K. pneumoniae that are antimicrobial resistant,” Russo says. “A bug that’s both hypervirulent and challenging to treat is a bad combination.”

A first step

“The advantage of identifying these genetic biomarkers is that they can be developed into rapid nucleic acid tests, which, if approved by the Food and Drug Administration, would then provide clinicians with an accurate method to quickly determine if a patient is suffering from an infection due to the classical or hypervirulent strain,” Russo explains.

He adds that such a test will not only prove critical for patient care; it will also be instrumental in helping scientists learn more about the epidemiology of hypervirulent K. pneumoniae. Once a hypervirulent strain is identifiable by a hospital’s clinical microbiology lab, clinicians should be able to manage this dangerous infection and save lives.