A new study published in Nature shows that sugar might reduce persistent infections. I spoke with researcher James Collins about his findings. James Collins is a professor of biomedical engineering at Boston University. His results were published in the May 12th edition of Nature. Below is an excerpt of our conversation.
SP: How was sugar able to boost the effectiveness of antibiotics?
What we discovered was that sugar could be used to stimulate certain processes in bacterial persisters, to enable a specific class of antibiotics to kill off or eradicate persisters. Specifically, what we found was that certain types of sugar could trigger processes within the bacterial cells to enable the cells to take up the antibiotics, and thereby seal their fate and kill them off.
SP: What are “persisters” and how do they work?
Bacterial persisters are dormant cells that make up a tiny fraction of bacterial population. As a result of their dormant state, they are resistant to antibiotics and the antibiotics can’t kill them off. When the next period of weakness comes in for a patient, due to fatigue, stress, or illness, the persisters will awaken. A fraction of the persisters will repopulate the area, and result in a recurrent infection. This is why we think persisters are underlying these recurrent infections, and why many current therapies are not effective against them.
SP: I know this study was performed in mice. What does this study mean for humans?
What this means for humans is that it may be feasible to deliver certain types of sugars that are not well metabolized by the body, such as mannitol, in conjunction with antibiotics, as a means to treat recurrent or persistent infections.
SP: How do you think this will play a role in future studies?
I think our work will inspire other research groups to dig in deeper and study some of the metabolic processes identified. We are hopeful that this will help lay the foundation for simple inexpensive treatments that can be used around the world, including the developing world, as a way to treat these resistant, recurrent infections. In each case, there’s considerable amounts of additional work that needs to be done, but we remain hopeful that this may offer a promising start.
Photo: James Collins/Boston University