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60-Second Science

Still Fighting the Plague

Researchers have come up with a way to make antibiotics more effective should the plague come back or if it is used for bioterrorism. Cynthia Graber reports

[The following is an exact transcript of this podcast.

The plague is most famous for killing tens of millions of people all over Europe in the 1300s.  Plague is caused by the bacteria Yersinia pestis. And the disease still exists in pockets around the world. In fact, because it can be transmitted through the air, the government considers the plague a Category A bioterrorism agent and a serious potential threat. 

Scientists from the University of Idaho have published a way to fight back at the plague in the journal Microbiology. Bacteria that cause the disease get past our defenses by dampening the immune system and actually preventing it from responding. But researchers have developed molecules that mimic a lipid on the bacterial surface. These molecules make the immune response spring back to life.

Scientists tested a nasal spray with two such molecules on mice infected with the plague. The spray enlivened the animals’ immune systems and made antibiotics much more effective. The spray and antibiotic combination helped more mice live through the plague compared with a control group. Despite this advance, one should still avoid Yersinia pestis like, well, the plague.

 

—Cynthia Graber

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