Scientists are using chaos to try and beat E. coli

Improving medicine.
Improving medicine.
Image: AP Photo/David Goldman
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For years, scientists at the University of Colorado have sought to defuse the destructive powers of a pernicious bacteria that often sneaks into the human body through tainted food. Turns out, one of the most effective ways to beat E. coli is to sow chaos.

Treating bacterial infections is a persnickety business. Bacteria like E. coli are notoriously good at adapting to the medical remedies doctors throw at them. With that in mind, researchers have been looking for new ways to combat them.

Rather than using medicine that attacks very specific, targeted links in a bacteria’s chain of genetic code, scientists have learned that by attacking a whole bunch at once they can create enough noise to thwart the organism’s ability to adapt to medicine, according to a new study published in the journal Communications Biology.

One of the senior researchers on the project, Anushree Chatterjee, uses a metaphor to better describe what her team achieved: “If there’s a person and if I just tug on their hair, they are a little pissed. But if I start tugging other areas—their coat and their shirt—they might lose it.”

So that’s the idea: Make the bacteria so angry and flustered by tugging at so many of its parts that it just stops working altogether. The method creates havoc in the bacteria, which is why the team has coined their method the “Controlled Hindrance of Adaptation of Organisms,” or “CHAOS,” approach. The project started in 2013 as an attempt to find genes that could operate like a cellular kill switch for E. coli. Now that work could wind up being an important development in the fight against antibiotic resistance.

“We are running out of antibiotics and the very important problem is that we don’t have any new classes of antibiotics coming up,” Chatterjee says. Antibiotics were created to treat bacterial infections, but over time many species of bacteria have figured out how to outsmart those medicines, making them much more difficult to treat. Antibiotic resistance has become so widespread that the World Health Organization has called on nations around the globe to adopt policies addressing the overuse and misuse of antibiotics in the medical profession and on farms.

Part of the issue is how often doctors prescribe antibiotics to people when they aren’t necessarily needed, such as for viruses when they are only helpful in treating bacterial infections. According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, one in three antibiotics prescribed at outpatient facilities is unnecessary. That’s compounded by the widespread use of antibiotics in animal agriculture—which accounts for some 70% of the total use of antibiotics.

When bacteria are constantly exposed to antibiotics because of overuse or unnecessary prescriptions, they more quickly figure out how to stay alive in spite of the medicine. They evolve, becoming more resistant to the antibiotics. And as they do, the antibiotics that doctors have long relied upon to treat health issues have become less effective.

It’s a problem exacerbated by the fact that some of the biggest pharmaceutical companies are getting out of the antibiotics business. Earlier this year, Novartis announced it would be dropping its antibacterial and antiviral research programs to focus on other areas of pharmaceutical research. It’s a trend, as AstraZeneca and Allergan have made similar moves, reducing company investment in the work.