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Defeating Salmonella requires an understanding of guerrilla warfare

19 January 2007

New research from scientists at the University of Cambridge has the potential to radically change our understanding of how infection spreads around the body and improve the methods used to control it.

If you are suffering from Salmonella food poisoning or, worse, typhoid fever, you feel like every cell in your body is under attack from an army of invading bacteria. However, rather than the bacteria mounting a mass assault scientists using state-of-the-art microscopy have found that Salmonella bacteria use a guerrilla warfare-like approach to attacking your body’s cells. Researchers at the University of Cambridge have found that the majority of cells infected with bacteria in the body contain just one or two bacteria rather than being overrun as might be expected. Working in collaboration with mathematicians they are now proposing a new model to explain infection. The new explanation shows that a single Salmonella bacterium invades a cell, grows and replicates before its progeny is released when the cell bursts. The released bacteria then fan out each independently infiltrating another cell. This forces the host immune system to fight low numbers of bacteria simultaneously at numerous sites of infection rather than having to deal with a small number of well confined “battlefields” each containing large numbers of Salmonella.

Research leader Dr Pietro Mastroeni explains: “When bacteria infiltrate cells one at a time they gain a head start over your body’s immune system. When a bacterium infects a cell it triggers an immune response and the inside of the cell becomes an increasingly hostile environment for the invader. By replicating quickly and escaping the bacteria can individually disseminate in the body and attack many more cells where the immune response has to start again from scratch.”

By using mathematical models the researchers have been able to show that as an infection develops most bacteria remain isolated in individual infected cells, even as the number of cells infected grows.

Dr Mastroeni commented: “Understanding the hit-and-run tactics used by infectious bacteria has important healthcare implications. It will help us to identify how different drugs might work most effectively in different combinations and to develop new vaccines. In both cases developments would include a dual approach to slow the replication inside the cell and to attack bacteria on the run outside the cell.”

The research, funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the Wellcome Trust, not only has public health implications but also demonstrates the importance of animals in research.

Professor Julia Goodfellow, BBSRC Chief Executive, explained: “Salmonella bacteria cause hundreds of thousands of deaths worldwide every year. Without using infected mouse cells we would not understand the behaviour of the bacteria. The combined use of biological data and mathematical models has enabled the researchers to test several and sometimes competing theories about infection, greatly reducing the need for many more animal experiments.”

ENDS

Notes to editors

This research features in the January 2007 issue of BBSRC Business, the research highlights magazine of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.

Salmonella enterica causes around 22 million cases of typhoid fever in people worldwide every year, resulting in around 250,000 deaths.

Other forms of Salmonella cause gastroenteritis and septicaemia that are particularly severe and often fatal in immunocompromised individuals and young children.

About BBSRC

The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) is the UK funding agency for research in the life sciences. Sponsored by Government, BBSRC annually invests around £380 million in a wide range of research that makes a significant contribution to the quality of life for UK citizens and supports a number of important industrial stakeholders including the agriculture, food, chemical, healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors. http://www.bbsrc.ac.uk

About the Wellcome Trust

The Wellcome Trust is the largest independent charity in the UK and the second largest medical research charity in the world. It funds innovative biomedical research, in the UK and internationally, spending around £500 million each year to support the brightest scientists with the best ideas. The Wellcome Trust supports public debate about biomedical research and its impact on health and wellbeing.

External contact

Dr Pietro Mastroeni, University of Cambridge

tel: 01223 765800

Contact

Matt Goode, Head of External Relations

tel: 01793 413299
fax: 01793 413382

Tracey Jewitt, Media Officer

tel: 01793 414694
fax: 01793 413382