Researchers at Harvard Medical School have discovered one way that a hardy disease-causing bacteria could be surviving in the lungs of chronically infected cystic fibrosis patients.
"This work is important because pathogenic bacteria such as Pseudomonas aeruginosa use protein secretion systems to cause disease in their hosts," said Joseph Mougous, lead author of the study published in the Science." In the case of Pseudomonas aeruginosa, the host may be a cancer patient with a weakened immune system, a burn patient, or a person with cystic fibrosis."
Pseudomonas aeruginosa, a pathogen that infects more than 80 percent of cystic fibrosis patients, is a leading cause of these patients' death.
Pseudomonas aeruginosa is difficult to treat because it is resistant to many drugs.
" Since we know so little about what this bacterium is up to while it's engaged in these chronic infections, the discovery of this protein secretion system might lead to finding a new target for treatments," said Mougous, at Harvard Medical School.
Researchers at Argonne National Laboratory ( ANL ) provided one of the clues that contributed to the discovery. Working through a number of pathogenic proteins, Marianne Cuff saw a bagel-shaped pore that might be involved in transferring toxins into cells. She deposited the structure of the protein, called Hcp1, into the Protein Data Bank.
While exploring the Protein Data Bank, Mougous recognized that the amino acid sequence of Hcp1 in Pseudomonas aeruginosa closely resembled that of Hcp1 in Vibrio cholerae.
The Mekalanos lab had previously discovered that the Hcp1 protein of Vibrio cholerae is released from the bacterium via a novel secretion pathway. Because Hcp1 proteins from both pathogens belong to the same protein family, Mougous wondered whether the Pseudomonas Hcp1 might also be secreted via this pathway.
The Harvard and Argonne researchers quickly formed a collaboration and confirmed the hypothesis. They then turned their attention to Hcp1 in cystic fibrosis patients to gain more insight in the role of Hcp1 during infection.
Working with cystic fibrosis patients at Children's Hospital Boston, the researchers sought and found Hcp1 in the sputum of patients with Pseudomonas aeruginosa. They also found Hcp1 antibodies in the patients' blood further evidence that Hcp1 plays a critical role in the infection.
" Patients with cystic fibrosis are particularly susceptible to Pseudomonas aeruginosa, " Mougous said. " The bacterium thrives in the excess mucus that accumulates in their lungs. Once a Pseudomonas aeruginosa infection in a cystic fibrosis patient's lung has been established, these bacteria are difficult or impossible to clear, which over many years eventually results in the death of the patient. Our paper provides evidence that the protein secretion system we discovered represents at least one way this bacterium could be promoting its own survival in the lungs of cystic fibrosis patients."
Source: Harvard Medical School, 2006