Solution to Stubborn Bacterial Infections Might Be Sweet


ENG researchers: sugar could fight recurring infections, TB

By Susan Seligson, BU Today

James Collins. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky
James Collins (ECE/SE) Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

A discovery by researchers at the College of Engineering may deliver a new weapon in the daunting battle against recurring, potentially lethal bacterial infections such as staphylococcus and streptococcus. And the weapon—a modified form of sugar—is as widely available and cheap as it is effective, says James Collins, a William Fairfield Warren Distinguished Professor, an ENG professor of biomedical engineering, and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, coauthor of the study appearing in the May 12 issue of Nature.

“A spoonful of sugar makes the medicine work,” says the MacArthur genius award recipient, paraphrasing Mary Poppins. It does that, he says, by “waking up” stealthy, dormant bacteria that can lie in a state of metabolic hibernation for weeks or months. Collins and his team found that sugar dramatically boosts the effectiveness of so-called first-line antibiotics such as streptomycin and tetracycline. A sugar-antibiotics combination could be used to wipe out recurring, often debilitating infections such as those of the ear, throat, lungs, and urinary tract, all of which can spread to the kidneys and other vital organs if left unchecked.

With the Harry Potter–esque name “persisters,” the class of particularly feisty bacteria seem to respond initially to antibiotic treatment, then go into hiding, only to emerge weeks or months later more aggressive than they were initially. These infections take a huge toll; Collins’ own mother has been hospitalized several times with recurring bouts of a stubborn, persister-like staphylococcus infection. In the lab, by adding sugar to antibiotics, the researchers found they were able, within two hours, to obliterate 99.9 percent of cultures of persister staphylococcus and e coli, the culprit in most urinary tract infections.

“Our goal was to improve the effectiveness of existing antibiotics, rather than invent new ones, which can be a long and costly process,” says study first author Kyle Allison (ENG’11), a PhD student in Collins’ lab.

The team also saw promising results after testing the antibiotic-sugar combination on e coli infections in mice. And they discovered that the combination treatment inhibited the spread of bacterial infection to the kidneys of the mice.

The most significant impact of the BU team’s research could be on tuberculosis (TB), a chronic bacterial infection of the lungs, which annually kills approximately 1.7 million people worldwide, according to the World Health Organization. Collins and Allison plan to study whether sugar additives can improve the efficacy of TB drugs.