The novel coronavirus has killed 1,000 people as of this week. Since December, it’s infected more than 40,000.
But there are deadlier infections that aren't making headlines right now, like pneumonia. Bacteria like Streptococcus pneumoniae, which is one of the most common causes of pneumonia, make thousands of people sick every year, including an estimated 22,000 who died after being infected.
Traditionally, antibiotics are used to fight bacterial pneumonia, but the bacteria that cause it can adapt and become drug-resistant over time. But researchers at the University of Nevada, Reno have shown there’s a new way to stop the bacteria — by preventing the bacteria from communicating with each other.
UNR Chemistry Professor Yftah Tal-Gan is lead researcher for the study. He explained to KNPR's State of Nevada exactly how bacteria "talk" to each other.
"Because they can’t speak like us, what they do is they produce chemical signals and they use those to communicate and understand their population density,” he said.
Tal-Gan explained that when we get a scratch or a cut bacteria make their way into the cut but our immune system reacts quickly and wipes them out.
So instead, bacteria hide from the immune system until they amass enough bacteria to attack.
“By assessing the population density and synchronizing their behavior, they can start attacking us and become virulent or pathogenic," he said, "They use these signaling molecules to decide when it is time to start attacking and all at the same time coordinate that attack.”
So, Tal-Gan and a team of researchers are trying to disrupt that communication with molecules that are similar enough to the real communication molecules that the bacteria's receptors take them in but different enough that the message isn't sent.
He said there is little risk of bacteria growing resistant to the treatment because unlike traditional anti-bacterial efforts the drug isn't killing all but the most resistant strains of the bacteria.
“We’re not selecting for resistance because we’re just silencing their communication,” Tal-Gan explained.
One of the reasons Tal-Gan and his team picked this particular bacteria is it becomes resistant to antibiotics quickly because it is able to pick up DNA from the environment but it uses the same pathway to get that DNA as it does to communicate.
“I thought it’s a great opportunity if we can target one pathway we can block all the nasty stuff that this bacteria do and stop that infection,” he said.
In addition, Tal-Gan said this technique could be used to stop the communication of other bacteria. All bacteria use the same cell-to-cell communication and disrupting that could stop all kinds of infections.
Yftah Tal-Gan, assistant professor, UNR
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