New Bacteria-Fighting Solution Bypasses Antibiotics in Favor of Common Nutrients

Researchers from the Salk Institute discovered that everyday supplements like iron could play a larger role in fighting bacterial infections than previously thought.
Shelby Rogers

Antibiotics have been a popular way to treat illnesses for years, but the overuse of them is leading to a spike in antibiotic-resistant bacteria. More antibiotics kill the weaker strains but also lead to stronger strains living on and multiplying. 

A more common solution

As such, a team of medical researchers from Salk Institute is now proposing a much more common solution to treating common bacterial issues: iron supplements. The researchers gave lab mice dietary iron supplements which allowed them to survive a potentially deadly strand of a bacterial infection.

The team discovered that nutrient interventions and other non-antibiotic strategies can also help patients' bodies fight bacterial infections. "Antibiotics and antimicrobials are one of the most important advances in medicine, and we definitely need to continue efforts focused on developing new classes of antimicrobials,” said Associate Professor Janelle Ayres who is the senior author of the new paper.

“But we need to learn from history and think about other ways to treat infectious diseases. Our work suggests that instead of killing bacteria, if we promote the health of the host, we can tame the behavior of the bacteria so that they don’t cause disease, and we can actually drive the evolution of less dangerous strains.”

The body working beyond antibiotics

Ayres and her team found increasing evidence to support her theory that the body has a 'cooperative defense system' in addition to our immune system. This defense system promotes health during a host-microbe attack in the body. 

The work is a continuation of her previous research. In 2017, the Salk Institute discovered that Salmonella bacteria could overcome the body's natural aversion to food when sick, giving the microbes more nutrients to stay alive.

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In 2015, similar research found that E. coli bacteria in mice could improve their hosts' tolerance to infections of their lungs and intestines by stopping muscle loss that occurs during potentially deadly infections. 

This new research studied a common gastrointestinal infection in mice called CR (Citrobacter rodentium). This issue commonly leads to diarrhea, weight loss, and in very extreme cases, death. 

The Salk team used a lethal dose of CR in mice known to kill 50% of host populations. They then used systems biology to compare the genetic activity induced in the infected healthy population compared to the infected sick population.

They also compared the two infected groups to an uninfected healthy population. They then gave the mice iron and discovered that the iron metabolism increased in the infected healthy population. 


Driving the evolution of pathology strains

“This was so exciting to us because it suggested that we basically drove the evolution of weakened strains of the pathogen,” explained Ayres. In short, the team found that dietary iron could be an effective treatment for CR.

However, the Salk researchers noted that iron would not be a logical nutrient-based solution for all bacterial infections. “There are some infections, such as malaria, in which giving iron would be a terrible idea, as the parasite thrives on iron,” said Ayres.

“However, I’m really encouraged by our findings because they suggest that manipulating the metabolic state of the host and the pathogen with common dietary elements can be extremely effective in curing infections. This means we can treat infections with strategies that are more globally accessible,” noted Ayres.

The study was published in the journal Cell.

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