Antibiotic resistance: myths and misunderstandings

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A pig flying at the Minnesota state fair. Picture by TCS.

I’ve been involved in a few discussions of late on science-based sites around yon web on antibiotic resistance and agriculture–specifically, the campaign to get fast food giant Subway to stop using meat raised on antibiotics, and a graphic by CommonGround using Animal Health Institute data, suggesting that agricultural animals aren’t an important source of resistant bacteria. Discussing these topics has shown me there’s a lot of misunderstanding of issues in antibiotic resistance, even among those who consider themselves pretty science-savvy.

I think this is partly an issue of, perhaps, hating to agree with one’s “enemy.” Vani Hari, the “Food Babe,” recently also plugged the Subway campaign, perhaps making skeptics now skeptical of the issue of antibiotics and agriculture? Believe me, I am the farthest thing from a “Food Babe” fan and have criticized her many times on my Facebook page, but unlike her ill-advised and unscientific campaigns against things like fake pumpkin flavoring in coffee or “yoga mat” chemicals in Subway bread, this is one issue that actually has scientific support–stopped clocks and all that. Nevertheless, I think some people get bogged down in a lot of exaggeration or misinformation on the topic.

So, some thoughts. Please note that in many cases, my comments will be an over-simplification of a more complex problem, but I’ll try to include nuance when I can (without completely clouding the issue).

First–why is antibiotic resistance an issue?

Since the development of penicillin, we have been in an ongoing “war” with the bacteria that make us ill. Almost as quickly as antibiotics are used, bacteria are capable of developing or acquiring resistance to them. These resistance genes are often present on transmissible pieces of DNA–plasmids, transposons, phage–which allow them to move between bacterial cells, even those of completely different species, and spread that resistance. So, once it emerges, resistance is very difficult to keep under control. As such, much better to work to prevent this emergence, and to provide conditions where resistant bacteria don’t encounter selection pressures to maintain resistance genes (1).

In our 75-ish years of using antibiotics to treat infections, we’ve increasingly found ourselves losing this war. As bacterial species have evolved resistance to our drugs, we keep coming back with either brand-new drugs in different classes of antibiotics, or we’ve made slight tweaks to existing drugs so that they can escape the mechanisms bacteria use to get around them. And they’re killing us. In the US alone, antibiotic-resistant infections cause about 2 million infections per year, and about 23,000 deaths due to these infections–plus tens of thousands of additional deaths from diseases that are complicated by antibiotic-resistant infections. They cost at least $20 billion per year.

But we’re running out of these drugs. And where do the vast majority come from in any case? Other microbes–fungi, other bacterial species–so in some cases, that means there are also pre-existing resistance mechanisms to even new drugs, just waiting to spread. It’s so bad right now that even the WHO has sounded the alarm, warning of the potential for a “post-antibiotic era.”

This is some serious shit.

Where does resistance come from?

Resistant bacteria can be bred anytime an antibiotic is used. As such, researchers in the field tend to focus on two large areas: use of antibiotics in human medicine, and in animal husbandry. Human medicine is probably pretty obvious: humans get drugs to treat infections in hospital and outpatient settings, and in some cases, to protect against infection if a person is exposed to an organism–think of all the prophylactic doses of ciprofloxacin given out after the 2001 anthrax attacks, for example.

In human medicine, there is still much debate about 1) the proper dosing of many types of antibiotics–what is the optimal length of time to take them to ensure a cure, but also reduce the chance of incubating resistant organisms? This is an active area of research; and 2) when it is proper to prescribe antibiotics, period. For instance, ear infections. These cause many sleepless nights for parents, a lot of time off work and school, and many trips to clinics to get checked out. But do all kids who have an ear infection need antibiotics? Probably not. A recent study found that “watchful waiting” as an alternative to immediate prescription of antibiotics worked about as well as drug treatment for nonsevere ear infections in children–one data point among many that antibiotics are probably over-used in human medicine, and particularly for children. So this is one big area of interest and research (among many in human health) when it comes to trying to curb antibiotic use and employ the best practices of “judicious use” of antibiotics.

Another big area of use is agriculture (2). Just as in humans, antibiotics in ag can be used for treatment of sick animals, which is completely justifiable and accepted–but there are many divergences as well. For one, animals are often treated as a herd–if a certain threshold of animals in a population become ill, all will be treated in order to prevent an even worse outbreak of disease in a herd. Two, antibiotics can be, and frequently are, used prophylactically, before any disease is present–for example, at times when the producer historically has seen disease outbreaks in the herd, such as when animals are moved from one place to another (moving baby pigs from a nursery facility to a grower farm, as one example). Third, they can be used for growth promotion purposes–to make animals fatten up to market weight more quickly.  The latter is, by far, the most contentious use, and the “low hanging fruit” that is often targeted for elimination.

From practically the beginning of this practice, there were people who spoke out against it, suggesting it was a bad idea, and that the use of these antibiotics in agriculture could lead to resistance which could affect human health. A pair of publications by Stuart Levy et al. in 1976 demonstrated this was more than a theoretical concern, and that antibiotic-resistant E. coli were indeed generated on farms using antibiotics, and transferred to farmers working there. Since this time, literally thousands of publications on this topic have demonstrated the same thing, examining different exposures, antibiotics, and bacterial species. There’s no doubt, scientifically, that use of antibiotics in agriculture causes the evolution and spread of resistance into human populations.

Why care about antibiotic use in agriculture?

A quick clarification that’s a common point of confusion–I’m not discussing antibiotic *residues* in meat products as a result of antibiotic use in ag (see, for example, the infographic linked above). In theory, antibiotic residues should not be an issue, because all drugs have a withdrawal period that farmers are supposed to adhere to prior to sending animals off to slaughter. These guidelines were developed so that antibiotics will not show up in an animal’s meat or milk. The real issue of concern for public health are the resistant bacteria, which *can* be transmitted via these routes.

Agriculture comes up many times for a few reasons. First, because people have the potential to be exposed to antibiotic-resistant bacteria that originate on farms via food products that they eat or handle. Everybody eats, and even vegetarians aren’t completely protected from antibiotic use on farms (I’ll get into this below). So even if you’re far removed from farmland, you may be exposed to bacteria incubating there via your turkey dinner or hamburger.

Second, because the vast majority of antibiotic use, by weight, occurs on farms–and many of these are the very same antibiotics used in human medicine (penicillins, tetracyclines, macrolides). It’s historically been very difficult to get good numbers on this use, so you may have seen numbers as high as 80% of all antibiotic use in the U.S. occurs on farms. A better number is probably 70% (described here by Politifact), which excludes a type of antibiotic called ionophores–these aren’t used in human medicine (3). So a great deal of selection for resistance is taking place on farms, but has the potential to spread into households across the country–and almost certainly has. Recent studies have demonstrated also that resistant infections transmitted through food don’t always stay in your gut–they can also cause serious urinary tract infections and even sepsis. Studies from my lab and others (4) examining S. aureus have identified livestock as a reservoir for various types of this bacterium–including methicillin-resistant subtypes.

How does antibiotic resistance spread?

In sum–in a lot of different ways. Resistant bacteria, and/or their resistance genes, can enter our environment–our water, our air, our homes via meat products, our schools via asymptomatic colonization of students and teachers–just about anywhere bacteria can go, resistance genes will tag along. Kalliopi Monoyios created this schematic for the above-mentioned paper I wrote earlier this year on livestock-associated Staphyloccocus aureus and its spread, but it really holds for just about any antibiotic-resistant bacterium out there:

And as I noted above, once it’s out there, it’s hard to put the genie back in the bottle. And it can spread in such a multitude of different ways that it complicates tracking of these organisms, and makes it practically impossible to trace farm-origin bacteria back to their host animals. Instead, we have to rely on studies of meat, farmers, water, soil, air, and people living near farms in order to make connections back to these animals.

And this is where even vegetarians aren’t “safe” from these organisms. What happens to much of the manure generated on industrial farms? It’s used as fertilizer on crops, bringing resistant bacteria and resistance genes along with it, as well as into our air when manure is aerosolized (as it is in some, but not all, crop applications) and into our soil and water–and as noted below, antibiotics themselves can also be used in horticulture as well.

So isn’t something being done about this? Why are we bothering with this anymore?

Kind of, but it’s not enough. Scientists and advocates have been trying to do something about this topic since at least 1969, when the UK’s Swann report on the use of Antibiotics in Animal Husbandry and Veterinary Medicine was released. As noted here:

One of its recommendations was that the only antimicrobials that should be permitted as growth promotants in animals were those that were not depended on for therapy in humans or whose use was not likely to lead to resistance to antimicrobials that were important for treating humans.

And some baby steps have been made previously, restricting use of some important types of antibiotics. More recently in the U.S., Federal Guidelines 209 and 213 were adopted in order to reduce the use of what have been deemed “medically-important” antibiotics in the livestock industry. These are a good step forward, but truthfully are only baby steps. They apply only to the use of growth-promotant antibiotics (those for “production use” as noted in the documents), and not other uses including prophylaxis. There also is no mechanism for monitoring or policing individuals who may continue to use these in violation of the guidelines–they have “no teeth.” As such, there’s concern that use for growth promotion will merely be re-labeled as use for prophylaxis.

Further, even now, we still have no data on the breakdown of antibiotic use in different species. We know over 32 million pounds were used in livestock in 2013, but with no clue how much of that was in pigs versus cattle, etc.

We do know that animals can be raised using lower levels of antibiotics. The European Union has not allowed growth promotant antibiotics since 2006. You’ll read different reports of how successful that has been (or not); this NPR article has a balanced review. What’s pretty well agreed-upon is that, to make such a ban successful, you need good regulation and a change in farming practices. Neither of these will be in place in the U.S. when the new guidance mechanisms go into place next year–so will this really benefit public health? Uncertain. We need more.

So this brings me back to Subway (and McDonald’s, and Chipotle, and other giants that have pledged to reduce use of antibiotics in the animals they buy). Whatever large companies do, consumers are demonstrating that they hold cards to push this issue forward–much faster than the FDA has been able to do (remember, it took them 40 freaking years just to get these voluntary guidelines in place). Buying USDA-certified organic or meat labeled “raised without antibiotics” is no 100% guarantee that you’ll have antibiotic-resistant-bacteria-free meat products, unfortunately, because contamination can be introduced during slaughter, packing, or handling–but in on-farm studies of animals, farmers, and farm environment, studies have typically found reduced levels of antibiotic-resistant bacteria on organic/antibiotic-free farms than their “conventional” counterparts (one example here, looking at farms that were transitioning to organic poultry farming).

Nothing is perfect, and biology is messy. Sometimes reducing antibiotic use takes a long time to have an impact, because resistance genes aren’t always quickly lost from a population even when the antibiotics have been removed. Sometimes a change may be seen in the bacteria animals are carrying, but it takes longer for human bacterial populations to change. No one is expecting miracles, or a move to more animals raised antibiotic-free to be a cure-all. And it’s not possible to raise every animal as antibiotic-free in any case; sick animals need to be treated, and even on antibiotic-free farms, there is often some low level of antibiotic use for therapeutic purposes. (These treated animals are then supposed to be marked and cannot be sold as “antibiotic-free”). But reducing the levels of unnecessary antibiotics in animal husbandry, in conjunction with programs promoting judicious use of antibiotics in human health, is a necessary step. We’ve waited too long already to take it.

Footnotes:

(1) Though we know that, in some cases, resistance genes can remain in a population even in the absence of direct selection pressures–or they may be on a cassette with other resistance genes, so by using any one of those selective agents, you’re selecting for maintenance of the entire cassette.

(2) I’ve chosen to focus on use in humans & animal husbandry, but antibiotics are also used in companion animal veterinary medicine and even for aquaculture and horticulture (such as for prevention of disease in fruit trees). The use in these fields is considerably smaller than in human medicine and livestock, but these are also active areas of research and investigation.

(3) This doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t lead to resistance, though. In theory, ionophores can act just like other antibiotics and co-select for resistance genes to other, human-use antibiotics, so their use may still contribute to the antibiotic resistance problem. Studies from my lab and others have shown that the use of zinc, for instance–an antimicrobial metal used as a dietary supplement on some pig farms, can co-select for antibiotic resistance. In our case, for methicillin-resistant S. aureus.

(4) See many more of my publications here, or a Nature profile about some of my work here.

 

Raw milk. Raw deal?

This is the sixth of 16 student posts, guest-authored by Anna Lyons-Nace. 

Natural…unprocessed…raw.  These terms are often used by consumers, nutritionists and health experts to denote the most healthful, high-quality food options available for consumption. However, when pertaining to the recent increasing trend in raw milk consumption, can consumers be confident that they are choosing the safest and most healthful option?  Statistical data and health studies would suggest otherwise.

Before we delve into the discussion any further, we should first establish what is considered raw milk and what is not raw.  Raw milk is considered any animal milk, most often from cows, sheep and goats, which is not pasteurized, but still utilized for human consumption. Keep in mind that raw milk can also be used for producing other dairy products such as cheese and yogurt. Raw milk may also undergo a straining process, but it is otherwise unprocessed.  Sources of raw milk are typically local farming operations.  In fact, the interstate sale of raw milk for direct consumption has been prohibited in the U.S. by federal law since 1987, due to safety concerns regarding shelf life and disease risks.  However, there are many states that allow the intrastate sale of raw milk, while a few states prohibit it completely.  This means that the vast majority of what we see in our local grocery stores will have undergone the process of pasteurization, which will be clearly stated on the label.  Pasteurization involves heating the milk to very specific temperatures for short time frames in order to kill potentially harmful germs. Pasteurization was introduced in the U.S. during the first part of the 20th century, at a time when millions of people were contracting life-threatening illnesses such as typhoid, diphtheria and tuberculosis, often through milk consumption. Applying the simple process of pasteurization, along with other health advances, led to a dramatic decline in such diseases, and is considered a major public health triumph.  Decreasing or eliminating potentially harmful microbes through pasteurization, not only makes the product safer for consumers, it also increases shelf life.

So why is raw milk becoming a sought after commodity for many consumers?  This can probably be attributed to such things as a general increase in societal demand for whole, natural and sustainable food products; as well as the perceived benefits of the milk itself. Raw milk drinkers claim that the unpasteurized product is higher in nutrients, protective enzymes and immune boosting probiotics, and can help treat a variety of ailments from asthma to gastrointestinal disorders. Supporters also claim that pasteurization is the cause of milk allergies and lactose intolerance.  It is important to note that these claims remain largely unsubstantiated by published scientific studies.  In many cases these claims have been categorically refuted by direct scientific evidence.  The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) frankly states that “research shows no meaningful difference between the nutrient content of pasteurized and unpasteurized milk”.  Science has also shown that most enzymes of concern by advocates are not altered by pasteurization. For those with allergy concerns, medical experts and research agrees that it is the proteins naturally present in milk (both raw and pasteurized) that are the cause of allergic reactions to milk and have no relationship to the pasteurization process.  In regards to lactose intolerance, it needs to be understood that lactose intolerance is a genetic error of metabolism that some people are born with, and there is lactose present in both raw and pasteurized milk.  So unfortunately for the lactose intolerant, raw milk is not the solution. As for probiotics, milk does not naturally contain probiotics; so if they are detected in the raw milk they are likely from another source such as air exposure or fecal contamination.  But the good news is that we as consumers have many, safer options for experiencing the benefits of probiotics, including yogurt with active cultures and over the counter supplements.

Now that we have explored some of the common myths surrounding raw and pasteurized milk, it is most important to discuss the reality of the risks involved with raw milk consumption. Real world case studies, as well as research by such reputable organizations as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the FDA, consistently show that the risks of raw milk consumption far outweigh any real or perceived benefit. A 13 year study by the CDC showed raw milk and raw milk products are 150 times more likely to cause a disease outbreak than are pasteurized dairy products. These risks come in the form of a long list of disease causing germs that can contaminate dairy products, and are the reason that pasteurization was instituted in the first place. Some of the more significant contaminants that can be present in raw milk include such pathogens as Salmonella, E. coli, Listeria, and Campylobacter.  These pathogens can cause a variety of symptoms, but most commonly produce gastrointestinal illness such as vomiting and diarrhea that can range from mild forms to fatal illnesses. The most vulnerable to becoming sick from drinking raw milk include babies, young children, those with weakened immune systems and pregnant women. But “healthy” people can become ill as well, and there are many documented cases. Data collected by the CDC from 1998-2009 documented 93 disease outbreaks due to raw milk and raw milk product consumption.  These outbreaks caused 1,837 illnesses, 195 hospitalizations, and 2 deaths.  It is important to note that for every case that is reported and diagnosed, there are many illnesses that go unreported, which means these case numbers in reality are certain to be much higher.  The most recently reported outbreak occurred in Oregon this past April.  The outbreak involved 19 people, 15 of which were children, with 4 of the children ending up in the hospital undergoing treatment for kidney failure.  Eleven of the cases were confirmed to have been caused by a very dangerous strain of E. coli that was traced back to a dairy farm that supplied the families with raw milk. In reflecting on outbreaks such as these, it is important to remember that these illnesses are preventable.   But hopefully, these sad cases will also serve to educate us as consumers, so that we can make informed and healthy choices for ourselves and our families.

References

  1. Langer AJ, Ayers T, Grass J, Lynch M, Angulo FJ, Mahon BE. Nonpasteurized dairy products, disease outbreaks, and state laws-United States, 1993-2006. Emerg Infect Dis. 2012 Mar;18(3):385-91.
  2. Oliver SP, Boor KJ, Murphy SC, Murinda SE. Food safety hazards associated with consumption of raw milk. Foodborne Pathog Dis. 2009 Sep;6(7):793-806. Review.
  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Trying to Decide about Raw Milk? Last Updated March 7, 2011, http://www.cdc.gov/foodsafety/rawmilk/decide-raw-milk.html (Accessed June 5, 2012)
  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Raw Milk Questions and Answers, Last Updated March 22, 2012, http://www.cdc.gov/foodsafety/rawmilk/raw-milk-questions-and-answers.html (Accessed June 5, 2012)
  5. Milk Facts, Heat Treatment and Pasteurization, http://milkfacts.info/Milk%20Processing/Heat%20Treatments%20and%20Pasteurization.htm (Accessed June 8, 2012)
  6. Food and Drug Administration, Raw Milk Misconceptions and the Danger of Raw Milk Consumption, Last Updated November 1, 2011, http://www.fda.gov/Food/FoodSafety/Product- SpecificInformation/MilkSafety/ConsumerInformationAboutMilkSafety/ucm247991.htm (Accessed June 5, 2012)
  7. Food and Drug Administration, Questions & Answers: Raw Milk, Last Updated November 1, 2011 http://www.fda.gov/food/foodsafety/product-specificinformation/milksafety/ucm122062.htm (Accessed June 5, 2012)
  8. Food Safety News, 19 Ill with E. Coli in Oregon Raw Milk Outbreak, Last Updated April 21, 2012, http://www.foodsafetynews.com/2012/04/post-5/ (Accessed June 5, 2012)
  9. International Association for Food Protection, Raw Milk Consumption: An Emerging Public Health Threat? Last updated 2012 http://www.foodprotection.org/events/other-meetings/3/iafp-timely-topics-symposium-raw-milk-consumption-an-emerging-public-health-threat/10/speaker-presentations/ (Accessed June 6, 2012)
  10. International Association for Food Protection, Nutritional Straight Talk on Raw and Pasteurized Milk, last updated 2012 http://www.foodprotection.org/files/timely-topics/TT_02.pdf (Accessed June 6, 2012)

 

 

Hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS): history and implications

Part One

It appears that the E. coli O104 sproutbreak is starting to wind down, with more than 3,500 cases diagnosed to date and 39 deaths. Though sprouts remain the key source of the bacterium, a recent report also documents that human carriers helped to spread the organism (via H5N1 blog). In this case, it was a food service employee working at a catering company, who spread infection to at least 20 people before she even realized she was infected.

As with many infectious diseases, there are potential lingering sequelae of infection, which can occur weeks to years after the acute infection has cleared up. Like almost 800 others involved in this outbreak, the woman who unwittingly infected others via food developed hemolytic uremic syndrome, or HUS. We now know that the most common cause of HUS are bacteria such as STEC (“shiga toxin-producing E. coli“); the “shiga toxin” that they produce inhibits protein synthesis in the host and cause cell death. This can have systemic effects, and leads to clotting in affected organs–most commonly the kidneys, but other organs can also be affected. Dialysis may be necessary, and the infection can lead to kidney failure and the need for organ transplantation. There is already concern that, because of the huge numbers of HUS cases, many patients will have long-term kidney damage, including the potential need for additional organs (and possibly, re-vamping the way donations are made as well):

In previous E. coli outbreaks, up to half of patients who developed the kidney complication were still suffering from long-term side effects 10 to 20 years after first falling sick, including high blood pressure caused by dialysis.

In addition to possible kidney problems, people who have survived serious E. coli infections may also suffer from neurological damage, as the bacteria may have eaten away at blood vessels in the brain. That could mean suffering from seizures or epilepsy years after patients recover from their initial illness.

While it’s common knowledge in the medical community now that STEC can lead to HUS, which can lead to chronic kidney issues, for many years, the link between E. coli and HUS was obscured. HUS first appears in the literature in 1955, but the link to STEC wasn’t confirmed until the early 1980’s. In the interim, myriad viruses and bacteria were examined, as well as genetic causes. (There are cases of HUS caused by host mutations and other etiologies, but they are much less common than HUS caused by STEC and related organisms). I’ll delve into the history of HUS and look at a few studies which examined alternative hypotheses of causation, until finally STEC was confirmed as the causative agent. I’ll also discuss what this means as far as discovering infectious causes of other “complex” and somewhat mysterious diseases whose causes are unknown, as HUS was a mere 30 years ago.

Part Two

The epidemiology of hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS) was murky for several decades after it was first defined in the literature in 1955. In the ensuing decades, HUS was associated with a number of infectious agents, leading to the general belief that it was a “multifactorial disease”–one that had components of genetics and environment, much like we think of multiple sclerosis today, for example.

Several HUS outbreaks made people think twice about that assumption, and look deeper into a potential infectious cause. A 1966 paper documented the first identified outbreak of HUS, which occurred in Wales. The researchers examined a number of possible environmental factors the patients may have had in common–including food, water, and various toxins–but came up empty. They sum up:

Since it is almost invariably preceded by a gastrointestinal or respiratory illness, it seems probable that it represents a response to an infection. Although Gianantonio et al. (1964) have identified one possible causative virus, it may be that various infective agents can initiate the syndrome.

This idea held throughout the next 20-odd years, as numerous studies looked at both environmental and genetic effects that may be leading to HUS. A 1975 paper examined HUS in families, suggesting that there may be two types of HUS (which we now know to be true–the genetic form is less often associated with diarrhea, and tends to have a worse prognosis as I mentioned yesterday). But still, no definitive cause for either.

There were also a number of studies testing individuals for many different types of pathogens. A 1974 paper enrolled patients in the Netherlands between 1965 and 1970, but one of the inclusion criteria was a “history of a prodromal illness in which gastrointestinal or respiratory tract symptoms were present.” The respiratory tract symptoms are mentioned in a number of papers, and were probably a red herring that sent people in search of the wrong pathogens for awhile. In this particular paper, they examined children for infection with a number of viral and bacterial pathogens, using either culture or serological methods (looking for antibodies which may suggest a recent infection). In that portion of the paper, they note a possible association with adenoviruses, but state that the data don’t support a bacterial infection–a viral etiology was deemed more likely. Regarding basic epidemiology, they did note a few small clusters of cases in families or villages, as well as a peak in cases in spring/summer–as well as an increasing number of cases from the first year of their study to the last. The epidemiology of HUS was starting to become clearer, and the syndrome appeared to be on the rise.

Even as additional case reports occasionally targeted foods as a precursor to HUS outbreaks, it wasn’t until the late 1970s and early 1980s that HUS really started to come into focus. In 1977, a paper was published identifying the “Vero toxin”–a product of E. coli that caused cytotoxicity in Vero cells (a line of African green monkey kidney cells, commonly used in research). Researchers were closing in.

Part Three

I left off yesterday with the initial discovery of “Vero toxin,” a toxin produced by E. coli (also called “Shiga toxin” or “Shiga-like toxin”). Though this may initially seem unconnected to hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), the discovery of this cytotoxin paved the way for a clearer understanding of the etiology of this syndrome, as well as the mechanisms by which disease progressed. By the early 1980s, several lines of research pointed toward E. coli, and particularly O157:H7, as the main cause of HUS.

A 1982 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention MMWR report found a rare E. coli serotype, O157:H7, associated with hemorrhagic colitis following consumption of hamburgers. Similar results were reported in a 1983 Lancet paper, which found serotype O157 among their collection of verotoxin-producing strains. Another paper that same year from a Canadian group showed that O157:H7 was the second most common cytotoxic strain in their collection of over 2,000 E. coli isolates. The most common was serotype O26–more on that below. This paper also discussed an outbreak of hemorrhagic colitis that had occurred at a nursing home, with O157 identified as the cause. The evidence was mounting, but these were small studies and not always associated with HUS. Still, these papers collectively were suggestive of a connection between E. coli infection (especially with strains that produced the shiga/vero toxin), hemorrhagic colitis, and HUS.

In 1985, a new study came out which really helped to seal the deal. Rather than look only at cases in isolation, the authors designed a case-control study looking at patients with “idiopathic HUS” (in other words, HUS of unknown origin which started with diarrhea, rather than the other variant lacking this symptom). They ended up with 40 patients who qualified. They then picked a single control for each patient, matching them on age, sex, and season of the year. The controls were children either diagnosed with Campylobacter enterocolitis (and therefore, enterocolitis of a known cause) or were healthy children either from a local daycare center, or kids coming in for elective surgeries. Stools were collected from each group and tested for a variety of organisms, including vero toxin-producing E. coli (VTEC, also known as STEC for the shiga-like toxin nomenclature). They also tested for activity of the toxin itself in fecal samples. Finally, in the case patients, attempts were made to collect what are called “acute” and “convalescent” blood samples. These are samples taken when the patient is actually sick (“acute”), and then ones taken a few weeks later (“convalescent), to look at the presence of antibodies in the blood. If it was an infection by the suspected organism (in this case, STEC/VTEC), you should see a rise in antibodies the host produces that target the organism–for these kids, they were looking for antibodies to the shiga/vero toxin.

They found either vero toxin or VTEC in 60% of the case patients, but in none of the controls. Of the VTEC isolated, serotypes included O26, O111, O113, O121, and O157. For the latter, it was the most common type isolated (25% of the VTEC found). Of the patients who were negative for both VTEC and vero toxin, from those who had paired blood samples (12/16 of the remaining cases), 6 did show a rise in antibody titer against the vero toxin–suggesting they had been exposed and were producing antibodies to neutralize the toxin. So, for those keeping score, 75% of the cases had evidence of VTEC infection either by culture or serological techniques. It may not have been the nail in the coffin and there are certainly some flaws (the diversity of controls and lack of analysis of blood titers for the controls being two that pop out at me), but this paper went a long way toward establishing VTEC/STEC as the cause of HUS, which has been subsequently confirmed by many, many studies worldwide.

The most common vehicles of transmission of these organisms have also come into clearer focus since the 1950s, with almost all HUS/STEC outbreaks associated with food products; most common is still the O157:H7 serotype. O157 is a bit unique, in that this strain typically doesn’t ferment sorbitol–as such, this is often used as a diagnostic feature that sets it apart from “normal” E. coli. However, as I mentioned above (and as the current outbreak has shown), a number of other serotypes besides O157:H7 can also cause HUS. Most of these don’t appear to be as commonly associated with outbreaks–rather, they may more commonly cause sporadic disease where fewer people may become sick. Because these don’t have the unique sorbitol-non-fermenting feature, these may be overlooked at a diagnostic lab. There are assays that can detect the Shiga-like toxin directly (actually, we now know there are multiple families of related toxins), but not all labs use these routinely, so it’s likely that the incidence of infection due to non-O157 STEC is higher than we currently know.

HUS was once a mysterious, “complex” disease whose perceived etiology shifted almost overnight, as scientific advances go. What implications does this have for other diseases whose etiology is similarly described as HUS was 50 years ago? More on that tomorrow.

Part Four

As I’ve laid out in parts 1-3, the realization that a fairly simple, toxin-carrying bacterium could cause a “complex” and mysterious disease like hemolytic uremic syndrome came only with 30 years’ of scientific investigation and many false starts and misleading results. Like many of these investigations, the true cause was found due to a combination of hard work, novel ways of thinking, and simple serendipity–being able to connect the dots in a framework where the dots didn’t necessarily line up as expected, and removing extraneous dots as necessary. It’s not an easy task, particularly when we’ve had mostly culture-based methods to rely on since the dawn of microbiology.

If you read start digging around in the evolutionary medicine literature, you’ll see that one oft-repeated tenet is that many more “chronic” and “lifestyle” diseases are actually caused by microbes than we currently realize. (I’ll note that there is active disagreement here in the field–one reason noted is that many of these diseases would decrease one’s fitness and thus they are unlikely to be genetic, but many of them also have onset later in life than the prime reproductive years, so–still controversial). But whether you agree on the evolutionary reasoning or not, I think it’s safe to say that those who make this claim (like the Neese & Williams book I linked) are probably right on the overall assertion that more and more of these “lifestyle/genetics” diseases are going to be actually microbial in cause than we currently realize.

Why do I agree with this claim? History is a great indicator. Many infectious diseases were thought to be due to complex interactions of genetics (or “breeding,” “lineage,” etc.) with “lifestyle.” Think of syphilis and tuberculosis in the Victorian era. Syphilis (and many other diseases which we know now to be sexually-transmitted infections) was considered a disease which affected mainly the lower social classes (“bad breeding”), and was thought to be rooted in both family history as well as an over-indulgence in sex or masturbation. Tuberculosis, because it affected those throughout the income spectrum, was still blamed on “poor constitution” in the lower classes, but was a disease of the “sensitive” and “artistic” in the upper classes. It was also thought to be due to influences of climate in combination with genetics. Or, look to more recent examples of Helicobacter pylori and gastric ulcers, which were also ascribed to dietary habits and stress for a good 30 years before their infectious nature was eventually proven. And from that same era, HIV/AIDS–which even today, some are still all too ready to write off as merely a behavioral disease, rather than an infectious one.

So, we still view many of these diseases of unknown etiology as multi-factorial, “complex” diseases. And undoubtedly, genetic predisposition does play a role in almost every infectious disease, so I’m not writing off any kind of host/pathogen interplay in the development of some of these more rare sequelae, such as HUS as a consequence of a STEC infection. But looking back over history, it’s amazing how many diseases which we view now as having a documented infectious cause were studied for years by researchers thinking that the disease was the result of exposure to a toxin, or diet, or behavior, or a combination of all three.

I’ve mentioned the example of multiple sclerosis in previous posts. Multiple sclerosis is an autoimmune disease; the body produces antibodies that attack and eventually destroy parts of the myelin sheath covering our nerves. The cause of MS, like HUS 40 years ago, is unknown, though it’s thought to be a combination of genetics and environmental influences. Going through the literature, it seems like almost everything has been implicated as playing a causal role at one point or another: pesticides, environmental mercury, hormones, various other “toxins,” and a whole host of microbes, including Chlamydia pneumoniae, measles, mumps, Epstein-Barr virus, varicella zoster (chickenpox), herpes simplex viruses, other herpes families viruses (HHV-6 and HHV-8), even canine distemper virus. They’ve done this looking at both microbe culture (from blood, brain tissue, CNS, etc.) as well as using serology and DNA/RNA amplification in various body sites. None have shown any strong, repeatable links to the development of MS–much like the spurious associations that were seen with adenovirus and HUS.

Although no microbial agent has been convincingly implicated to date, there are tantalizing hints that MS is caused by an infectious agent. There have been “outbreaks” of MS; the most famous occurred in the Faroe Islands in the 1940s. Studies of migrants show that the risks of developing MS seem to be tied to exposures in childhood, suggesting a possible exposure to an infectious agent as a kid. And one of the most common mouse models used to study MS has the disease induced by infection with a virus called Theiler’s murine encephalitis virus (TMEV). If it can happen in mice, why not humans?

It might seem implausible that infection with some microbe could lead to the eventual neurological outcomes of MS, but again, examples abound of weird connections between microbes and health outcomes. For STEC, it might not be intuitively obvious at first glance how a fecal organism could be a cause of kidney failure. The respiratory bacterium Streptococcus pyogenes usually causes throat infections (“strep throat”), but if left untreated, it can also cause kidney damage (glomerulonephritis) or even heart failure due to rheumatic heart disease. A microbial cause of MS could lie in a virus, bacterium, parasite, or fungus–maybe one that we haven’t even discovered yet, but that perhaps will pop up as we learn more and more about our metagenome. Perhaps 30 years down the road, the way we view many of these “complex” diseases will look as short-sighted as it does looking back at old HUS papers from today’s vantage point.

Hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS) in history–part 3

I left off yesterday with the initial discovery of “Vero toxin,” a toxin produced by E. coli (also called “Shiga toxin” or “Shiga-like toxin”). Though this may initially seem unconnected to hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), the discovery of this cytotoxin paved the way for a clearer understanding of the etiology of this syndrome, as well as the mechanisms by which disease progressed. By the early 1980s, several lines of research pointed toward E. coli, and particularly O157:H7, as the main cause of HUS.

A 1982 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention MMWR report found a rare E. coli serotype, O157:H7, associated with hemorrhagic colitis following consumption of hamburgers. Similar results were reported in a 1983 Lancet paper, which found serotype O157 among their collection of verotoxin-producing strains. Another paper that same year from a Canadian group showed that O157:H7 was the second most common cytotoxic strain in their collection of over 2,000 E. coli isolates. The most common was serotype O26–more on that below. This paper also discussed an outbreak of hemorrhagic colitis that had occurred at a nursing home, with O157 identified as the cause. The evidence was mounting, but these were small studies and not always associated with HUS. Still, these papers collectively were suggestive of a connection between E. coli infection (especially with strains that produced the shiga/vero toxin), hemorrhagic colitis, and HUS.

In 1985, a new study came out which really helped to seal the deal. Rather than look only at cases in isolation, the authors designed a case-control study looking at patients with “idiopathic HUS” (in other words, HUS of unknown origin which started with diarrhea, rather than the other variant lacking this symptom). They ended up with 40 patients who qualified. They then picked a single control for each patient, matching them on age, sex, and season of the year. The controls were children either diagnosed with Campylobacter enterocolitis (and therefore, enterocolitis of a known cause) or were healthy children either from a local daycare center, or kids coming in for elective surgeries. Stools were collected from each group and tested for a variety of organisms, including vero toxin-producing E. coli (VTEC, also known as STEC for the shiga-like toxin nomenclature). They also tested for activity of the toxin itself in fecal samples. Finally, in the case patients, attempts were made to collect what are called “acute” and “convalescent” blood samples. These are samples taken when the patient is actually sick (“acute”), and then ones taken a few weeks later (“convalescent), to look at the presence of antibodies in the blood. If it was an infection by the suspected organism (in this case, STEC/VTEC), you should see a rise in antibodies the host produces that target the organism–for these kids, they were looking for antibodies to the shiga/vero toxin.

They found either vero toxin or VTEC in 60% of the case patients, but in none of the controls. Of the VTEC isolated, serotypes included O26, O111, O113, O121, and O157. For the latter, it was the most common type isolated (25% of the VTEC found). Of the patients who were negative for both VTEC and vero toxin, from those who had paired blood samples (12/16 of the remaining cases), 6 did show a rise in antibody titer against the vero toxin–suggesting they had been exposed and were producing antibodies to neutralize the toxin. So, for those keeping score, 75% of the cases had evidence of VTEC infection either by culture or serological techniques. It may not have been the nail in the coffin and there are certainly some flaws (the diversity of controls and lack of analysis of blood titers for the controls being two that pop out at me), but this paper went a long way toward establishing VTEC/STEC as the cause of HUS, which has been subsequently confirmed by many, many studies worldwide.

The most common vehicles of transmission of these organisms have also come into clearer focus since the 1950s, with almost all HUS/STEC outbreaks associated with food products; most common is still the O157:H7 serotype. O157 is a bit unique, in that this strain typically doesn’t ferment sorbitol–as such, this is often used as a diagnostic feature that sets it apart from “normal” E. coli. However, as I mentioned above (and as the current outbreak has shown), a number of other serotypes besides O157:H7 can also cause HUS. Most of these don’t appear to be as commonly associated with outbreaks–rather, they may more commonly cause sporadic disease where fewer people may become sick. Because these don’t have the unique sorbitol-non-fermenting feature, these may be overlooked at a diagnostic lab. There are assays that can detect the Shiga-like toxin directly (actually, we now know there are multiple families of related toxins), but not all labs use these routinely, so it’s likely that the incidence of infection due to non-O157 STEC is higher than we currently know.

HUS was once a mysterious, “complex” disease whose perceived etiology shifted almost overnight, as scientific advances go. What implications does this have for other diseases whose etiology is similarly described as HUS was 50 years ago? More on that tomorrow.

Hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS) in history–part 2

As I mentioned yesterday, the epidemiology of hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS) was murky for several decades after it was first defined in the literature in 1955. In the ensuing decades, HUS was associated with a number of infectious agents, leading to the general belief that it was a “multifactorial disease”–one that had components of genetics and environment, much like we think of multiple sclerosis today, for example.

Several HUS outbreaks made people think twice about that assumption, and look deeper into a potential infectious cause. A 1966 paper documented the first identified outbreak of HUS, which occurred in Wales. The researchers examined a number of possible environmental factors the patients may have had in common–including food, water, and various toxins–but came up empty. They sum up:

Since it is almost invariably preceded by a gastrointestinal or respiratory illness, it seems probable that it represents a response to an infection. Although Gianantonio et al. (1964) have identified one possible causative virus, it may be that various infective agents can initiate the syndrome.

This idea held throughout the next 20-odd years, as numerous studies looked at both environmental and genetic effects that may be leading to HUS. A 1975 paper examined HUS in families, suggesting that there may be two types of HUS (which we now know to be true–the genetic form is less often associated with diarrhea, and tends to have a worse prognosis as I mentioned yesterday). But still, no definitive cause for either.

There were also a number of studies testing individuals for many different types of pathogens. A 1974 paper enrolled patients in the Netherlands between 1965 and 1970, but one of the inclusion criteria was a “history of a prodromal illness in which gastrointestinal or respiratory tract symptoms were present.” The respiratory tract symptoms are mentioned in a number of papers, and were probably a red herring that sent people in search of the wrong pathogens for awhile. In this particular paper, they examined children for infection with a number of viral and bacterial pathogens, using either culture or serological methods (looking for antibodies which may suggest a recent infection). In that portion of the paper, they note a possible association with adenoviruses, but state that the data don’t support a bacterial infection–a viral etiology was deemed more likely. Regarding basic epidemiology, they did note a few small clusters of cases in families or villages, as well as a peak in cases in spring/summer–as well as an increasing number of cases from the first year of their study to the last. The epidemiology of HUS was starting to become clearer, and the syndrome appeared to be on the rise.

Even as additional case reports occasionally targeted foods as a precursor to HUS outbreaks, it wasn’t until the late 1970s and early 1980s that HUS really started to come into focus. In 1977, a paper was published identifying the “Vero toxin”–a product of E. coli that caused cytotoxicity in Vero cells (a line of African green monkey kidney cells, commonly used in research). Researchers were closing in.

Hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS) in history–part 1

It appears that the E. coli O104 sproutbreak is starting to wind down, with more than 3,500 cases diagnosed to date and 39 deaths. Though sprouts remain the key source of the bacterium, a recent report also documents that human carriers helped to spread the organism (via H5N1 blog). In this case, it was a food service employee working at a catering company, who spread infection to at least 20 people before she even realized she was infected.

As with many infectious diseases, there are potential lingering sequelae of infection, which can occur weeks to years after the acute infection has cleared up. Like almost 800 others involved in this outbreak, the woman who unwittingly infected others via food developed hemolytic uremic syndrome, or HUS. We now know that the most common cause of HUS are bacteria such as STEC (“shiga toxin-producing E. coli“); the “shiga toxin” that they produce inhibits protein synthesis in the host and cause cell death. This can have systemic effects, and leads to clotting in affected organs–most commonly the kidneys, but other organs can also be affected. Dialysis may be necessary, and the infection can lead to kidney failure and the need for organ transplantation. There is already concern that, because of the huge numbers of HUS cases, many patients will have long-term kidney damage, including the potential need for additional organs (and possibly, re-vamping the way donations are made as well):

In previous E. coli outbreaks, up to half of patients who developed the kidney complication were still suffering from long-term side effects 10 to 20 years after first falling sick, including high blood pressure caused by dialysis.

In addition to possible kidney problems, people who have survived serious E. coli infections may also suffer from neurological damage, as the bacteria may have eaten away at blood vessels in the brain. That could mean suffering from seizures or epilepsy years after patients recover from their initial illness.

While it’s common knowledge in the medical community now that STEC can lead to HUS, which can lead to chronic kidney issues, for many years, the link between E. coli and HUS was obscured. HUS first appears in the literature in 1955, but the link to STEC wasn’t confirmed until the early 1980’s. In the interim, myriad viruses and bacteria were examined, as well as genetic causes. (There are cases of HUS caused by host mutations and other etiologies, but they are much less common than HUS caused by STEC and related organisms). In future posts this week, I’ll delve into the history of HUS and look at a few studies which examined alternative hypotheses of causation, until finally STEC was confirmed as the causative agent. I’ll also discuss what this means as far as discovering infectious causes of other “complex” and somewhat mysterious diseases whose causes are unknown, as HUS was a mere 30 years ago.

German officials declare E. coli O104:H4 a sproutbreak

Via H5N1, German officials are calling it for sprouts:

Germany on Friday blamed sprouts for a bacteria outbreak that has left at least 30 dead and some 3,000 ill, and cost farmers across Europe hundreds of millions in lost sales.

“It’s the sprouts,” Reinhard Burger, the president of the Robert Koch Institute, Germany’s national disease centre, told a news conference on the outbreak of enterohaemorrhagic E. coli (EHEC) in northern Germany.

“People who ate sprouts were found to be nine times more likely to have bloody diarrhoea or other signs of EHEC infection than those who did not,” he said, citing a study of more than 100 people who fell ill after dining in restaurants.

As a result, the government lifted a warning against eating raw tomatoes, lettuce and cucumbers.

There still haven’t been any positive tests, but as I mentioned yesterday, the epi seems to strongly point to sprouts. Confirmation via bacterial isolation and typing would be ideal, but I’m not holding my breath for that to happen at this late date. Larger studies also, I’m hoping, will be done–the numbers above state that they came from ~100 people, out of approximately 3,000 sickened so far, and we still don’t know how the implicated sprouts were contaminated. Did it originate in the seeds? (If so, still from where?) Was it human-to-sprout contamination from a sick worker on the farm? (If so, where again did the worker pick it up?) Still so many unanswered questions, but at least this should let some of the other farmers’ lives get back on track.

The case of the missing smoking sprouts

Maryn McKenna has a great update today on the E. coli situation, looking at where we are as far as unanswered questions about the outbreak and the strain. It’s been a messy day; more evidence seems to point to the sprout farm, but CIDRAP also notes that another contaminated cucumber was found in the compost bin of a family sickened by the bacterium (this one had the correct serotype–O104), but it’s impossible to tell at this point whether the cucumber was the source of that bacterium or it ended up there from one of the sickened family members. Twists and turns abound in this investigation. I’ve not seen any confirmation that the remaining sprout isolates tested negative yet, either.

One thing I want to emphasize and expand upon, from the CIDRAP article:

Most of the investigation findings point back to a sprout source, and microbiological testing a month after the fact doesn’t change that, Hedberg said. “Negative micro results cannot negate positive epi results. This is an important principle that we cannot state too strongly.”

At this late date, it’s hard to say whether we’ll be able to definitively trace this back to its source–too much time may have passed for there to be any remaining contaminated source material left. This means we might not ever find the “smoking gun” (or smoking sprouts, as the case may be). With such a severe outbreak–725 cases of hemolytic uremic syndrome, over a quarter of those infected–that’s bad news if we can’t confirm the vehicle, as it may make it more difficult to find the ultimate source of this strain. However, as Hedberg notes, we do still have the epi. This was used long before we had today’s molecular typing techniques, or even before we had microbiology culture ability, for that matter. Think John Snow’s cholera investigations, where he didn’t even know about bacteria and yet was able to determine the water as the vehicle for infection. So while confirmation may not happen, it’s still looking like most lines of evidence point to the implicated farm.

Maryn also brings up a great point that what we’re seeing as far as cases may be over-estimating the actual severity of the infection. I’ve talked about this previously regarding influenza infections, particularly H5N1. Right now H5N1 has a high mortality rate–but is it artificially high, because mild or asymptomatic infections are being missed?

With O104, as with any food-borne infection, surely this is happening. Mild diarrhea or stomach cramping isn’t something people frequently go to their healthcare provider over, so inevitably cases are missed. However, it probably happens with any E. coli outbreak, yet in most others we still see HUS rates between about 2-7% of the confirmed infections, while this one is at about 26%. So it doesn’t seem (to me, at least) that missed mild infections are the whole story. Is this acting like the novel Clostridium difficile strains, which have a mutation in a regulatory gene that leads them to pump out higher levels of toxin than “regular” strains? More than just genetic analysis will be needed to investigate that–some basic microbiology will also be needed. If nothing else, this outbreak has given us much research fodder over the coming years.

E. coli update: no positive sprouts so far

Well, Sunday the said we’d have some results on the sprout tests for E. coli O104:H4. Well, so far the results are negative.

The 1st tests from a north German farm suspected of being the source
of an _E. coli_ [O104:H4] outbreak are negative, officials say. Of 40 samples from the farm being examined, they said 23 tested negative.

Officials had said earlier that bean sprouts produced at the farm in Uelzen, south of Hamburg, were the most likely cause of the outbreak. The outbreak, which began 3 weeks ago and is concentrated in Hamburg, has left 22 people dead. Initially, German officials had pointed to Spanish cucumbers as the probable cause of the illness.

The moderator notes that just because the ones being tested are negative, it doesn’t rule out the farm as the source of the outbreak. Perhaps all the contaminated sprouts are gone, and if it was something wrong at the farm (contamination of the water by sewage or something similar), it may have resolved itself. Nevertheless, after the false start with the Spanish cucumbers, it would certainly be nice to get some kind of confirmation. Apparently the tests on the remaining 17 samples are still pending so it remains to be seen if there will be any proven connection, but it’s looking less likely. If they don’t find anything definitive, officials are going to have even more egg on their faces.

While the human cases seem to be slowing down, this is going to be bad if the source can’t be identified–and that gets more difficult to do every day that passes.

E. coli update: sprouts as the culprit?

The E. coli story is moving quickly. A news report out today suggests that sprouts might be the culprit (though it should be emphasized that the outbreak strain hasn’t been isolated from these vegetables yet):

Mr Lindemann said epidemiological studies all seemed to point to the plant nursery in Uelzen in the state of Lower Saxony, about 100km (62m) south of Hamburg – though official tests had not yet shown the presence of the bacteria there.

“Further evidence has emerged which points to a plant nursery in Uelzen as the source of the EHEC cases, or at least one of the sources,” he said.

“The nursery grows a wide variety of beansprouts from seeds imported from different countries.”

As far as the molecular analyses, Kat Holt and David Holme have been doing some additional analyses of the released genome sequences, and it looks like this is an old strain of enteroaggregative E. coli (the type which usually cause more run-of-the-mill diarrhea; free review here, but it’s a bit dated) which has simply acquired the Shiga toxin. From Kat:

It will be interesting to see what more can be found as the assemblies of the strains are improved with additional data. While the analysis so far suggests that this is a classic case of E. coli sharing genes via various mechanisms of horizontal transfer (i.e. bacteria doing what bacteria do), it will be very interesting to tease out the subtleties of the virulence genes and how they interplay to result in this particularly virulent bug.

For me, another interesting unanswered question will be the origin–if it’s on the sprouts, how did it get there? Are animals in the area carrying this? Why so many antibiotic resistance genes? Still quite a bit to learn, even if the sprouts indeed turn out to be the vehicle.