As bacteria grows increasingly resilient against antibiotics, scientists are casting further and further afield for a way to fight off deadly bacterial infections. Heinz Eichenwald, a professor at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center stumbled upon a mystery that could help protect children from potentially fatal diseases by exposing them to bacterial strains in the very first days after being born.
The inspiration for this unusual idea came from a hospital case where a nurse was transmitting a Staphylococcus strain to a multitude of newborns. Unknown to the nurse, she was acting in a Typhoid Mary role wherein she was incubating the Staphylococcus without knowing she was infected. Children under her care began to get skin lesions and other topical infections.
What piqued the interest of Eichenwald was that children that were slightly older – just a matter of days – were more resistant to the Staph infections than their younger counterparts. He believed that these older children were able to more easily fight off the bacterial colonization because they had been exposed to other bacteria which had limited the effectiveness of the Staphylococcus.
What he had found was bacterial interference. Rather than treating children with antibiotics, they could be exposed to similar bacterial strains which would use up the resources needed by the dangerous bacteria to survive. Without those resources, the pathogens were unable to proliferate amongst the children. By giving them a banal bacterial infection, they could be inoculated against dangerous ones.
An ethically gray experiment was devised by Eichenwald. He took children in hospitals where deadly Staph outbreaks were ongoing and proceeded to treat them with a form of the bacteria that was not harmful. He was training their bodies how to fight off the dangerous bacteria by giving them a similar strain that was almost totally harmless.
The results were staggering. Outbreaks of Staphylococcus were almost totally eradicated in the hospitals where the newborns were treated with the less dangerous bacteria. Without using antibiotics that would ultimately make the bacteria stronger, he had found a way to prevent dangerous bacteria from gaining a foothold. He’d managed to pit the Staph against a form of itself, fighting fire with fire.
Research is being conducted into the feasibility of implementing these protective measures in all children, fostering a stronger immunity response and arming them with a greater natural defense, rather than the introduction of antibiotics which will only work as a temporary fix, eventually creating ever stronger pathogenic bacteria.
In mice, the results have been encouraging, showing that using beneficial or innocuous bacteria into their environment, they become able to combat the stronger strains which would otherwise be harmful or fatal.