Researchers at TNO have achieved an international breakthrough in the war on life-threatening bacteria such as the EHEC strain of E. coli.
TNO’s food scientists have succeeded in identifying natural ingredients capable of eradicating bacteria that have developed resistance to antibiotics. The discovery has been tested on ESBL bacteria but it can also be used to combat the EHEC bacteria currently wreaking havoc in Germany. To date EHEC has claimed over 20 lives and infected thousands of people. Fear of the deadly bacteria is also growing in the Netherlands.
No immediate solace for sufferers
Unfortunately for the people in Germany and elsewhere currently infected with the bacteria, this discovery offers no immediate solace. Dr Jan Pieter van der Lugt, Director of Food & Nutrition at TNO explains: “We need another six months to develop this discovery into a readymade solution. After that we have to ensure that the solution complies with government regulations. Compliance is a very time-consuming process, so I estimate that it will be another two years before the solution is available, in the practice of livestock breeders and feed companies, and that the reduction of the number of dangerous bacteria from the source will be accomplished.”
“This breakthrough is vital to the future of public health,” continues Dr Van der Lugt. “There are countless bacteria out there capable of mutating into equally dangerous counterparts to the EHEC bacteria. For instance, 94 percent of the chicken in our supermarkets is infected with ESBL bacteria which have also become resistant to antibiotics.”
Tackling resistance to antibiotics
As Dr Van der Lugt observes, it’s all a matter of approach: “Protecting yourself from ESBL bacteria is one solution but the real solution lies in tackling the root of the problem, which is the development of resistance to antibiotics throughout the veterinary sector, from livestock farming to feed companies. The excessive use of antibiotics in that sector means that more and more of these substances are finding their way into our food. Eventually bacteria get so used to them that they become resistant. So if we become seriously ill, due to infection with ESBL or EHEC for example, there are no antibiotics left that can kill these bacteria. Thankfully we still have a handful of powerful antibiotics that are successful in combating many illnesses, but fundamental change is needed to prevent a situation in which we will soon be powerless in the face of deadly diseases.”
TNO’s study was initially aimed at ridding the entire food chain of antibiotics, from the barn to the dinner table. Dr Van der Lugt continues: “It’s only logical that livestock farmers want to keep their cows, pigs, chicken and calves healthy. But pumping them full of antibiotics creates a ticking time bomb. Eventually it will work against us. We are therefore going in search of ingredients already found in the natural world which can kill harmful bacteria. TNO now wants to expand the study to establish a larger programme involving almost 30 companies. If we can give animals clean food at the start of the chain, that will ensure that the food on our table is safe.”
Library of thousands of bacteria
To this end, TNO researchers have established a library that contains the thousands of bacteria that live in our digestive system. They have mapped out exactly how these bacteria reproduce, what they respond to and what kills them. That knowledge is now being applied to combating the ESBL bacteria. Using good old-fashioned detective work and ongoing experiments, researchers were able to find a mix of natural ingredients that can kill these harmful bacteria. The mix has now been extensively tested on infected chickens, resulting in an astounding recovery. This approach will enable us to effectively combat new dangers resulting from multi-resistant bacteria in future.