Resisting a Slimy Enemy (2008)

Researcher at work

Emory microbiologist Phil Rather is fighting on the front lines of one of the most challenging battles for soldiers injured in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Rapidly growing numbers of these heroes are transported to the clean sheets and safety of European and American military hospitals only to find themselves in the crosshairs of a virulent bacterium that has spread quickly since the war in Afghanistan began in 2001.

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Resisting a Slimy Enemy

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Perhaps the organism's most high-profile victim was ABC anchor Bob Woodruff, who survived his serious injuries and then almost died of infection with Acinetobacter baumannii. It may cause no problems for a healthy person, but in those with a penetrating wound or a weakened immune system, it can cause wound infections, pneumonia, meningitis, septicemia, and other life- threatening problems. Now resistant to most antibiotics, A. baumannii is widely considered the most important infectious disease problem coming out of the recent military conflicts. To make matters worse, it is spreading to the general population.

The organism has spread quickly since the war in Afghanistan began in 2001.

The secret of its success is its ability to create biofilm, a slimy substance visible to the eye that can coat the surface of catheters, respirators, other in-dwelling medical devices, and the walls and floors of ICUs. Biofilms are important medically because bacteria in a biofilm are a thousand times more resistant to many commonly used antibiotics.

Rather is on a mission to understand how biofilms form and how this process could be disrupted. He and his research team already have identified five genes involved in biofilm formation, including one that enables bacterial cells to communicate with each other via chemical signals. That gives us the information we need to design inhibitors of the signaling process, he says. It's exciting scientifically, he adds, and even more so to realize the impact these findings can have as soon as they can be applied to patients who are affected.