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Scientists go into battle to disarm superbug

Visit  Imperial College London website

19 March 2010

Two recent pieces of research from Imperial College London, funded in part by BBSRC, reveal new ways of tackling the armour and weapons of Clostridium difficile, the 'superbug' that causes severe infections in hospital patients and the elderly.

C. difficile is a bacterium that can cause severe gut infections in humans, particularly in those taking antibiotics. Some strains of C. difficile are resistant to treatment with most antibiotics, earning them the name 'superbugs'.

C. difficile infection is a major problem in healthcare settings and scientists are taking different approaches to tackling the problem. At Imperial, two of the research groups involved in this work have published their findings this month: one targets the bacterium's protective coat and the other investigates its toxin.

The antibiotic resistance of C. difficile is helped by a thick protein coat that functions as protective armour. In the March issue of ACS Chemical Biology, Imperial researchers announce their discovery of a chemical that interferes with the formation of this protein coat. The team, led by Dr Ed Tate from the Department of Chemistry, hopes this chemical could ultimately be developed into a drug to block the formation of the coat, leaving the way open for antibiotics to attack C. difficile.

As well as its armour, C. difficile has a potent weapon: protein toxins. These toxins, which cause the symptoms of disease in infected patients, are each made up of four molecular parts. Until now, scientists have known relatively little about the way these pieces fit together. Professor Neil Fairweather, Dr Kate Brown and their postdoctoral researcher Dr. David Albesa-Jové from the Department of Life Sciences at Imperial, reveal this in the 3D structure of the toxin, published in the March issue of the Journal of Molecular Biology. By understanding how these pieces fit together, the researchers hope it may be possible in the future to design vaccines to target the toxin.

Both studies were funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the Medical Research Council (MRC). The protein coat research was also supported by the Biochemical Society.

ENDS

About BBSRC

BBSRC is the UK funding agency for research in the life sciences. Sponsored by Government, BBSRC annually invests around £450M in a wide range of research that makes a significant contribution to the quality of life in the UK and beyond and supports a number of important industrial stakeholders, including the agriculture, food, chemical, healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors.

BBSRC provides institute strategic research grants to the following:

  • The Babraham Institute
  • Institute for Animal Health
  • Institute for Biological, Environmental and Rural Studies (Aberystwyth University)
  • Institute of Food Research
  • John Innes Centre
  • The Genome Analysis Centre
  • The Roslin Institute (University of Edinburgh)
  • Rothamsted Research

The Institutes conduct long-term, mission-oriented research using specialist facilities. They have strong interactions with industry, Government departments and other end-users of their research.

External contact

Lucy Goodchild, Press Officer, Imperial College London

tel: 020 7594 6702 or ext. 46702
out of hours: 07803 886248

Contact

Matt Goode, Head of External Relations

tel: 01793 413299