Doctors may be able to kill off persistent staph infections using a cheap and easy method. A little boost of sugar can help kill the type of bacteria that regular antibiotics miss.Many patients are plagued with recurrent infections, especially if they’re in a hospital. Despite precautions like hand-washing and sterile instruments, infection rates in hospitals are high. Doctors treat these infections with a high dose of antibiotics, hoping to kill off the bacteria immediately and completely. Sometimes unlucky patients have bugs with a resistance to antibiotics – and there’s nothing that can stop the runaway infection.Other times, though, the infection is killed off and the patient recovers, only to sicken once more when the bacteria come back. That’s because they weren’t dead after all. They were hibernating.
Certain strains of bacteria can shut down their metabolic functions when trouble comes. They’re called persisters. They are genetically identical to their non-persister brethren, but they’re nastier. Although they’re produced in low numbers, they’re able to hide out for weeks or months in a patient being treated with antibiotics. Once they come ‘back to life,’ they re-start the infection. Once they’re in, only patience, persistence, and luck can eventually eradicate them. Recently their luck took a turn for the worse. Researchers discovered a weakness: persisters have a sweet tooth.
Adding some ordinary sugar to the antibiotic helps it kill off persisters. Bacteria, persister and not, feed on sugars. Persisters survive by shutting down their metabolism when antibiotics strike, but if they’re stimulated by sugar, they just keep feeding. This allows the antibiotics to destroy them exactly the way ordinary bacteria are destroyed. Adding such a simple and widely available compound to existing antibiotics enhances their effectiveness against persisters, and fast. One test showed that a sugared up antibiotic could eliminate 99.9 percent of persisters in two hours, while a regular antibiotic did nothing. Doctors believe that this discovery will help treat urinary tract infections, staph infections, and strep throat, but its most life-saving application may be against the age-old disease tuberculosis. This infection of the lungs kills many people, and is hard to fight off. A little sugar could help save a lot of lives.