systems biology


A ‘Spoonful Of Sugar’ Could Help Antibiotics Kill Bugs

You know that sinking feeling. Your bladder is feeling constantly full, announcing the return of your urinary tract infection. Or your baby is screaming again, just as he screamed the last time he had an ear infection. Or your teenager says, “My throat is hurting — feels like the strep is back.”

Certain bacterial infections have an infuriating tendency to recur even after they’re treated with antibiotics, and scientists have determined a key reason why: A few of the bugs go into a dormant state that protects them from antibiotics. Known as “persisters,” they are the bacterial villains behind those pesky infections that just keep coming back.

Today in the journal Nature, researchers report discovering a surprisingly sweet method to get rid of those nasty persisters. From the Boston University press release:

James Collins, a pioneering researcher in the new field of systems biology and a MacArthur Genius, says: “You know the old saying: ‘a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down?’ This is more like ‘a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine work.’

Dr. Collins, a professor of Biomedical Engineering at Boston University who is also a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator and a core faculty member of the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University, is talking about his recent development of an effective, low-cost – and surprising – way to treat chronic bacterial infections, such as staph, strep, tuberculosis, and infections of the urinary tract.

Boston University professor of biomedical engineering Jim Collins

He and his team of scientists discovered that a simple compound – sugar – dramatically boosts the effectiveness of first-line antibiotics. Their findings appear in the May 12 issue of Nature (online May 11th).

Dr. Collins, 45, who is also a founder of the new field of synthetic biology, has a personal interest in this research. His 71 year old mother, Eileen Collins, was hospitalized several times in recent years with recurrent bouts of a serious staph infection. Doctors treated her with multiple intravenous antibiotics and still the infection could not be killed. It was his mother’s suffering that added urgency to Dr. Collins’ research.

You’ve probably heard about the looming problem of bacteria that have become resistant to antibiotics largely because the drugs are so heavily prescribed these days. Persisters are different, the release explains: Continue reading