BU Today

Science & Tech

Solution to Stubborn Bacterial Infections Might Be Sweet

ENG researchers: sugar could fight recurring infections, TB


James Collins: “A spoonful of sugar makes the medicine work.” 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.

Susan Seligson can be reached at sueselig@bu.edu.



7 Comments on Solution to Stubborn Bacterial Infections Might Be Sweet

  • Cynthia Kowal on 05.13.2011 at 11:59 am

    FYI – this professor is one of the best ones here

  • Anonymous on 05.13.2011 at 12:21 pm

    How do you use sugar in treatment?

    This is very interesting! If I were to use this method, how should I use sugar? Should I just drink fluids that contain a lot of sugar like orange juice? Or is it a certain part of medication?

  • Anonymous on 05.13.2011 at 1:11 pm

    just eat what you always do

    please…as if americans don’t consume enough sugar as it is already…

  • Anonymous on 05.13.2011 at 2:44 pm

    Yes, the HHMI is a big deal.

  • Anonymous on 05.14.2011 at 1:48 am


    The article says its a modified form of sugar, which means its probably not found in foods. Luckily it seems to be easy to make in the lab.

    Go Collins. Definitely one of the best/brightest here at BU.

  • Anonymous on 06.08.2011 at 1:13 am

    A doctor once suggested a nasal irrigation, the neti pot type of thing, with honey diluted in water to treat persistent sinus infections. However, did not mention concurrent antibiotic treatment.

  • UTI Sufferer on 02.26.2012 at 7:35 am

    One of the available treatments for Thrush/UTI’s is an inert sugar called D-Mannose (it forces some bacteria to ‘let go’ of the bladder wall). Perhaps this would interact with this new finding???

Post Your Comment

(never shown)