A team led by Professor Yves Dufrêne of UCL’s Institute of Life Sciences, in collaboration with Trinity College Dublin, recently discovered a molecule that can prevent a huge problem for hospitals and their patients: staph infections acquired during hospital stays. The research that led to the discovery was recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.
Certain pathogenic bacteria, such as staphylococcus aureus (also known as ‘golden staph’), cling to indwelling medical devices – catheters, heart valves, grafts, lenses, artificial joints, shunts – and multiply to form biofilms. These multicellular communities cause nosocomial (i.e. hospital-acquired) infections that are particularly difficult to treat owing to their resistance to antibiotics. An alternative to antibiotics is anti-adhesion treatment. Biofilms are able to form owing to so-called ‘adhesion proteins’ on the surface of pathogens that act like glue. Anti-adhesion treatment ‘masks’ these surface proteins with an intervening molecule, thus preventing pathogens from sticking together. (See ‘Bacterial biofilms under the microscope’.)
Inactivating adhesion proteins
While this idea is not new – cranberry juice has long been a traditional ‘anti-biofilm’ remedy for urinary infections – today the researcher’s challenge is to consistently develop new effective molecules for optimising the prevention of biofilms and treatment of infections.
The molecule discovered by Professor Yves Dufrêne’s team is a synthetic peptide derived from the neuronal molecule β-neurexin. It inactivates a major adhesion protein on the surface of staphylococcus aureus, including its antibiotic-resistant strains.
Made possible by ERC funding
The discovery owes a debt to live-cell nanoscopy – highlighted in 2014 by a Nobel Prize in Chemistry – and the atomic force microscope, both of which make possible the testing and selection of the most effective anti-adhesive molecules.
Funded by an ‘Advanced Grant’ from the European Research Council, the research is an important step in the development of new treatments for preventing biofilm formation and to complement the antibiotic arsenal against bacterial infection.
A glance at Yves Dufrêne's bio