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NMSU biology professor tackles tough bacterial infection

Research being conducted by a biology professor at New Mexico State University may help prevent deaths due to a deadly type of bacteria.

ar 90,000 people in the United States die of infections they pick up while in the hospital. Up to one quarter of these infections can be caused by a type of bacteria known as Staphylococcus aureus. Staphylococcus aureus produces unique toxins and causes ailments ranging from boils and wound infections to life-threatening diseases such as toxic shock syndrome and blood infections.

Like many other bacteria, Staphylococcus aureus can become resistant to antibiotics.

"Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus is a common hospital pathogen that is resistant to the penicillins and penicillin-like antibiotics, which make up a large percentage of the antibiotics on the market today," said John Gustafson, assistant professor of biology.

Gustafson and his students are trying to identify genes that Staphylococcus aureus requires to survive in the presence of multiple antibiotics and disinfectants. Drug companies could use this information to develop novel therapies for treating Staphylococcus aureus infections.

"If drugs could be developed that 'knock out' the activity of the product of these genes, we might be able to reduce this bacteria's ability to become resistant to antibiotics," Gustafson said.

Gustafson has collected Staphylococcus aureus for his research from area hospitals. In the process of doing so, he has made some interesting discoveries.

In a recent study of specimens collected from two medical centers in El Paso, Gustafson found the same strain of the bacteria in all the patients, suggesting that one strain is causing the vast majority of Staphylococcus aureus infections in El Paso-area hospitals.

Gustafson explains that Staphylococcus aureus lives within the nasal cavity of about 10 to 40 percent of the healthy population. The trouble begins when the bacteria are transmitted from the nasal area into open wounds, lesions or the hands of hospital staff via a sneeze or nasal secretion onto an item.

"Patients can bring the Staphylococcus aureus that causes their own infection into a hospital themselves, or they can get it from other infected patients while in the hospital or from staff who have not disinfected their hands while moving from an infected patient to another patient," Gustafson said. "This type of infection spread is a common occurrence in hospitals around the world and is expensive and difficult to control."

However, Gustafson said simple techniques can be used to prevent the spread of Staphylococcus aureus, such as putting antibiotic ointment in the nasal cavities of people who come into the hospital for scheduled surgeries, or placing alcohol gel dispensers at patient bedsides to encourage frequent handwashing. Patients with active infections of strains that are capable of spreading also could be quarantined.

Gustafson said that some of the Staphylococcus aureus strains found in the El Paso hospitals are particularly dangerous because they are resistant to multiple antibiotics.

Gustafson is beginning research this month with Las Cruces-area medical centers and hopes to work with some hospitals in Mexico as well.

"We want to find out what is happening in the whole Paso del Norte area with regard to the spread of Staphylococcus aureus," he said. "Is one strain causing the majority of these infections and, if it is, can identifying its presence be used to stop it from spreading?"

Gustafson has a grant from the National Institutes of Health to support his research and also receives funding from two programs at NMSU that are funded by the NIH: Research Initiative for Scientific Enhancement (RISE) and Minority Access to Research Careers (MARC). He is a member of a group studying Staphylococcus aureus for the National Institute of Allergy and Infections Diseases.