Clostridium bacteria are a normal component of the gut microbiome. In rare cases, dysbiosis of Clostridium in the body can cause serious infections including tetanus and gas gangrene. Tetanus, an infection caused by a type of Clostridium called Clostridium tetani, is estimated to cause over 200,000 deaths worldwide each year. Tetanus, often referred to as “lockjaw” produces a toxin that causes painful muscle contractions and leads to difficulty swallowing and opening the mouth.
Gas gangrene is caused by another Clostridium species called Clostridium perfringens. This bacterial infection produces toxins that release gas and eventually lead to tissue death. Though these bacterial infections are rare, research is needed to understand how these infections work on a molecular level and to improve available treatments.
Researchers at The Australian National University are studying a type of Clostridium bacteria called Clostridium septicum to elucidate the mechanisms by which this bacteria impacts the immune system. The researchers found that cells are able to recognize a compound called α-toxin when the cell’s cytoplasm is infected with Clostridium septicum. Therapies could be developed to block the pathway involved with Clostridium septicum infection to prevent severe complications of this type of bacterial infection, including sepsis and death.
Clostridium septicum infections number at less than a thousand per year in the United States. Since Clostridium septicum infections are so rare, little research has previously been done on these bacteria. Professor Si Ming Man, one of the researchers involved in the study, described the bacteria as “incredibly lethal”. Four out of five people who develop an infection of this bacteria die within two days.
“Our research shows there might be new therapies we could develop, such as using certain drugs to neutralize the toxin,” Professor Man said. "We’ve also shown there are drugs in the clinical trial stage right now that could block the single immune receptor, blocking your own immune system from responding to this toxin too violently. Together this could be a life-saving therapy.”