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Deadly bacteria has an ally lurking in our guts

C. difficile is a bacterium which can cause potentially deadly infections, especially among the elderly and individuals on long-term treatments with antibiotics. Infections with these bacteria – averaging about 350,000 cases per year in the U.S. – are usually characterized by diarrhea, nausea, and fever, and once infected, patients are prone to recurrent re-infections.

Now, a team of scientists from the University of Virginia (UVA) have found that certain microorganisms present in our guts – a group of antibiotic-resistant “opportunistic pathogens” called enterococci – could make C. difficile more potent and dangerous for certain people.

“The interactions between C. diff, other microbes, and the human gut are highly complex. This study leveraged expertise from a large, multidisciplinary team across several institutions to disentangle these complex interactions and discover key mechanisms that help C. diff cause disease,” said study co-author Jason Papin, an expert in Biomedical Engineering at UVA. “With this greater understanding, we have an opportunity to develop new therapeutic strategies to treat this dangerous infection.”

The scientists collected stool samples from a cohort of patients infected with C. difficile, and, using a combination of lab tests and advanced computer modelling, they investigated how C. diff. interacts with other microorganisms in the gut. The analysis revealed that enterococci – bacteria that, even on their own, can sometimes cause dangerous and difficult to treat infections, such as meningitis, diverticulitis, or urinary tract infections – make for a dangerous ally to C. diff, since they produce amino acids such as leucine and ornithine, which make C. diff more dangerous for people on long-term antibiotics.

By clarifying how this bacterium interacts with enterococci and other gut microorganisms, doctors will be better positioned to battle this common, yet possibly serious infection. “Biology is a data-rich science and the power of computational models to use these data is only in its infancy. We’re excited about the innumerable opportunities to use data science and computer modeling to drive biological discovery,” Papin concluded.

The study is published in the journal Nature.

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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