60-Second Science

Stopping, Sopping, Bacterial Toxins

A new class of drug fights food poisoning by mopping up the toxins that bacteria release. Karen Hopkin reports

[The following is an exact transcript of this podcast.]

As long as there have been mice, people have sought a better mousetrap. And since we figured out that bacteria can make us sick, we’ve searched for better antibiotics. Now scientists in Canada and Japan have come up with a new way to disarm the bugs that cause food poisoning.

Most antibiotics directly attack the microbes that make us ill. Penicillin, for example, weakens bugs’ tough outer wall to the point that many of them simply explode. While such treatment kills the bacteria, it doesn’t necessarily eliminate the threat. Because a lot of bugs produce toxins, and it’s the toxins that knock us for a loop. Blowing up the bugs can just make things worse.

What these researchers have designed is a drug that helps the body mop up bacterial toxins. In their study, a single injection of the drug protected mice from the potentially lethal effects of shiga toxin, the sick-making molecule produced by the kinds of E. coli that cause food poisoning. Their results appear in the October 28th issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. With antibiotic resistance on the rise, having more weapons in our antibacterial arsenal is not a bad idea. Because anyone who’s eaten the sun-baked potato salad can tell you food poisoning is no picnic.

—Karen Hopkin 

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