FEB 20, 2019 11:27 AM PST

Scientists Learn How a Common Bacterium Turns Deadly

WRITTEN BY: Carmen Leitch

Strep throat is a common illness that causes hundreds of millions of infections every year around the world. Most cases aren’t severe, but in some people, it can turn into a devastating disease called childbed fever. The illness, which impacts women and newborns after childbirth, can lead to the loss of limbs or death. Scientists at Houston Methodist have now learned more about why it happens; the findings have been reported in Nature Genetics.


"Puerperal sepsis, more commonly called childbed fever, causes a lot of deaths on a global basis in women who are in the process of giving birth or soon after birth," said the corresponding author of the study James M. Musser, MD, Ph.D., chairman of the Department of Pathology and Genomic Medicine at Houston Methodist. He outlines the work in the video. "It is estimated that about ten percent of all women who get childbed fever will end up dying. It's devastating and can sometimes also cause the child to die."

Musser led a research team that assessed three types of group A streptococcus by studying the genomes, the transcriptomes or genes that were being expressed, virulence, and how they related. "By understanding the relationship and interplay between the genome, transcriptome, and virulence, we have a much greater chance of being able to successfully create new vaccines and therapies for infected patients, as well as find other ways to prevent or at least minimize how much damage they cause to humans," Musser explained.

They generated a huge amount of information and needed artificial intelligence to analyze it. "The magnitude of data we generated for this bacterial pathogenesis paper is unprecedented. It opened the door for us to use novel and more sophisticated tools like artificial intelligence to examine it. With these new types of analyses, we're making an important step toward ultimately having an effective vaccine to eradicate group A strep from the face of the earth."

They focused on a strain that is among the most common causing human infectious disease, the M28 strain of group A streptococcus. "Numerically, the M28s are very important causes of human infections, so we wanted to get new insight on it, because if you begin to understand the molecular pathogenesis processes, then you have [the] ability to begin potentially developing new therapeutics and diagnostics," he said. 

This is a scanning electron microscope image of Staphylococcus pyogenes bacteria (pink). / Credit: NIH National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID)

It turned out to be a single nucleotide indel in a space between genes that changes how genes are expressed and ultimately, makes the strain virulent. "We were able to clearly show new routes about how the M28 strain of group A strep causes infection, and it gives us a roadmap for understanding how this organism causes maternal sepsis," Musser continued. "This extensive knowledge we now have gives us insight into how one might begin to attack important downstream research like developing a vaccine or new treatment to fight this organism and potentially eradicate it in the future."

The data the researchers created will be made publicly available. They are hopeful others will gain fresh new insights from it.

Sources: AAAS/Eurekalert! Via Houston Methodist, Nature Genetics

About the Author
Bachelor's (BA/BS/Other)
Experienced research scientist and technical expert with authorships on over 30 peer-reviewed publications, traveler to over 70 countries, published photographer and internationally-exhibited painter, volunteer trained in disaster-response, CPR and DV counseling.
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