New clues to how bacteria evade antibiotics

January 09, 2014

Scientists have made an important advance in understanding how a subset of bacterial cells escape being killed by many antibiotics.

Cells become "persisters" by entering a state in which they stop replicating and are able to tolerate antibiotics. Unlike antibiotic resistance, which arises because of genetic mutations and is passed on to later generations, this tolerant phase is only temporary, but it may contribute to the later development of resistance.

In a new study in the journal Science, researchers from the MRC Centre for Molecular Bacteriology and Infection at Imperial College London have succeeded in visualising persister cells in infected tissues for the first time, and have identified signals that lead to their formation.

Virtually all bacterial species form subpopulations of persisters that are tolerant to many antibiotics. Persisters are likely to be a cause of many recurrent infections, but little is known about how they arise.

The team developed a method for tracking single cells using a fluorescent protein produced by the bacteria. They showed that Salmonella, which causes gastroenteritis and typhoid fever, forms large numbers of non-replicating persisters after being engulfed by immune cells called macrophages. By adopting this non-replicating mode, Salmonella survives antibiotic treatment and lingers in the host, accounting for its ability to cause recurrent infections.

The researchers also identified factors produced by human cells that trigger bacteria to become persisters.

One of the lead authors, Dr Sophie Helaine, said: "We rely on antibiotics to defend us against common bacterial infections like tuberculosis, cystitis, tonsillitis and typhoid, but a few cells can escape treatment by becoming persisters, which allows the infection to come back. This is a big problem in itself, but it also makes it more likely that antibiotic resistance will arise and spread.

"Now we know the molecular pathways and mechanisms that lead to persister formation during infection, we can work on screening for new drugs to coax them out of this state so that they become vulnerable to antibiotics."

The other lead author, Professor David Holden, Director of the MRC Centre for Molecular Bacteriology and Infection at Imperial College London, said: "One of the most striking findings in this work is that conditions inside immune cells activate two different responses from Salmonella, causing some bacteria to replicate and others to enter a non-replicating persister state. Activating these two responses together is likely to be an important mechanism by which Salmonella survives during infection."
-end-
The research was supported by an Imperial College London Junior Research Fellowship, the Wellcome Trust and the Medical Research Council.

For more information please contact:

Sam Wong
Research Media Officer
Imperial College London
Email: sam.wong@imperial.ac.uk
Tel: +44(0)20 7594 2198
Out of hours duty press officer: +44(0)7803 886 248

Notes to editors

1. Reference: S. Helaine et al. 'Internalization of Salmonella by Macrophages Induces Formation of Nonreplicating Persisters.' Science, 10 January 2014. To view the paper, sign in to Eurekalert or contact the Science press team: +1 202-326-6440 scipak@aaas.org

2. About Imperial College London

Consistently rated amongst the world's best universities, Imperial College London is a science-based institution with a reputation for excellence in teaching and research that attracts 14,000 students and 6,000 staff of the highest international quality. Innovative research at the College explores the interface between science, medicine, engineering and business, delivering practical solutions that improve quality of life and the environment - underpinned by a dynamic enterprise culture.

Since its foundation in 1907, Imperial's contributions to society have included the discovery of penicillin, the development of holography and the foundations of fibre optics. This commitment to the application of research for the benefit of all continues today, with current focuses including interdisciplinary collaborations to improve global health, tackle climate change, develop sustainable sources of energy and address security challenges.

In 2007, Imperial College London and Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust formed the UK's first Academic Health Science Centre. This unique partnership aims to improve the quality of life of patients and populations by taking new discoveries and translating them into new therapies as quickly as possible.

Website: http://www.imperial.ac.uk

Imperial College London

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