March 13, 2016

Research Roundup: antibiotic resistance in preemies, a low-cost TB test, and more

Senior Program Assistant

A new study out of the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Missouri, revealed a proliferation of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in the gastrointestinal tracts of premature infants. The team collected fecal samples from 84 babies born premature and identified nearly 800 genes that enable bacteria to develop resistance to 16 different antibiotics. Preterm infants are more susceptible to infection and nearly all are given antibiotics preemptively for at least the first few days of life. However, this practice could have unintended consequences; high bacterial diversity in the gut protects against infection from harmful bacteria, and the study indicated that preterm infants have one-tenth the number of bacteria species found in babies born full term. The team used a novel technique to identify genes that can confer drug resistance, resulting in the discovery of hundreds of genes not previously associated with antibiotic resistance. Further, the findings suggest that administering one antibiotic can result in a growth in resistance to other antibiotics. However, breastfeeding and aging appeared to have a positive impact on the infants’ gut, resulting in increased bacterial diversity.

The bacteria, Mycobacterium tuberculosis, that causes tuberculosis. (Photo: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID))

A novel, low-cost technique can diagnose tuberculosis (TB) in 25 minutes using just a urine sample. Standard TB tests require X-rays and/or mucus samples, which are harder to acquire than urine samples, particularly in low-resource settings. In a study of more than 2,500 patients across four countries in sub-Saharan Africa, use of the test reduced TB deaths in HIV/AIDS patients by four percent, as improved detection enabled patients to start treatment early. In Africa alone, 300,000 HIV/AIDS patients die of TB annually, and thus, this diagnostic technique could save thousands of lives each year. The new tool costs US$2.66 per test, whereas the leading TB test costs $10 and requires a $17,000 machine to read the results.

Last week, US government representatives met with scientists and public health officials to discuss a White House ban, instated 18 months ago, on research that makes viruses more dangerous than natural strains. Within the scientific community, many argue that such research can be done safely, and that the potential scientific and public health benefits are significant, whereas others contend that the benefits are overstated and the risk is too high. The officials met to discuss the establishment of a high-level committee which would review proposals for such studies, weighing the potential benefits and risks, evaluating the security of the laboratory facilities, and determining whether the results could be achieved through less risky research. Prior to the meeting, Dr. Inglesby—CEO of the UPMC Center for Health Security—along with Drs. Lipsitch and Relman of Harvard University and Stanford University, proposed policy options for conducting such research safely. The recommendations include: requiring a high-level official to approval such research (i.e., the director of the National Institutes of Health), defining “red lines” for research that would prompt additional safety reviews, limiting such research to select labs with the highest level of security, or requiring the purchase of insurance policies for such research.

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