BREAKTHROUGHS BLOG

January 22, 2017

Research Roundup: Bacteria-sniffing dogs, vaccines for epidemics, and more

Senior Program Assistant
GHTC

In this regular feature on Breakthroughs, we highlight some of the most interesting reads in global health research from the past week.

An English springer spaniel has been trained to sniff out Clostridium difficile, a drug-resistant bacterium that infects nearly half a million Americans and costs the US health system an estimated US$1 billion annually. The two-year-old pup—Angus—was tapped for the job after Teresa Zurberg, who normally trains dogs to sniff out bombs and drugs, almost lost her life to C. difficile. Zurberg’s husband, a nurse, had read about a now-retired beagle in the Netherlands that had been trained to smell the bacteria on patients, and the couple approached the local health authorities, suggesting their new pup would be a prime candidate for such a job. Now, after extensive training, Angus is an official employee of Vancouver General Hospital, where he moves from room to room, searching for traces of the bacteria, which are then destroyed using ultraviolet light. As nearly two-thirds of C. difficile cases are acquired in hospitals, dogs like Angus could have a significant impact in not just detecting, but preventing, new cases of C. difficile.

Launched last week at the World Economic Forum in Davos, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) seeks to develop vaccines against the diseases most likely to cause the next major pandemic. The coalition was established by the governments of Norway, Japan, and Germany in partnership with philanthropic organizations the Wellcome Trust and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Collectively, these partners have pledged US$460 million to the initiative, half of what is needed for CEPI’s first five years of operation. During its initial phase, CEPI will focus on advancing two experimental vaccines for each of the three viruses that have been identified by the World Health Organization as leading contenders for the next major pandemic: Lassa fever, Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), and Nipah virus.

The petri dish on the left contains a bacterium that is susceptible to most antibiotics and is consequently unable to grow near them (the discs). The petri dish on the right contains a CRE bacterium that is resistant to most antibiotics, and that is consequently able to thrive in their presence (Photo: CDC/James Gathany).
The petri dish on the left contains a bacterium that is susceptible to most antibiotics and is consequently unable to grow near them (the discs). The petri dish on the right contains a CRE bacterium that is resistant to most antibiotics, and that is consequently able to thrive in their presence (Photo: CDC/James Gathany).

Carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae (CREs), a class of deadly, drug-resistant bugs that have been deemed “nightmare bacteria” by the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be more prevalent and virulent than previously realized. These bacteria often contain specific genes that enable them to evade different types of antibiotics, including carbapenems, potent drugs that are often reserved as the last line of treatment against drug-resistant infections. To better understand their evolution and spread, researchers at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology sequenced the genomes of 263 CREs, collected from patients at four hospitals. The results revealed that carbapenem resistance is emerging across diverse types of bacteria and that the genes that confer resistance can be transferred between distinct bacterial families. Even more alarming: some CREs don’t have any of the known resistance genes, meaning that there are either more, unidentified resistance genes than we are aware of or that CREs have developed other ways to resist antibiotics. The study also indicates that CREs can be carried and transmitted asymptomatically, making surveillance of these dangerous infections all the more difficult.

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