E. Coli Treatment Could be Reality

Lack of commercial interest has delayed life-saving treatments

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) A life-saving treatment for E. coli could have been developed more than a decade ago but stalled because of lack of commercial interest.

Though researchers at the University of Adelaide in Australia created a "designer" probiotic bacterium capable of binding and neutralizing the toxin produced by E. coli, which can cause a life-threatening attack on the kidneys and blood vessels, it never moved on to clinical trials in humans.

If the treatment had been created, it possibly could have saved hundreds of lives during the current E coli outbreak in Germany.

"The development of E. coli treatment could still be many years away."

A team of scientists from the university including Dr. Adrienne Paton, associate professor Renato Morona and professor James Paton successfully demonstrated that mice infected with a highly virulent strain of E. coli were protected by the probiotic bacterium.

The harmless probiotic was engineered to mimic binding receptors for the potentially fatal Shiga toxin contained in the E. coli strain currently sweeping Europe.

Professor James Paton, who is also the director of the Research Centre for Infectious Diseases in the School of Molecular and Biomedical Science, said that following an E. coli diagnosis, there would be ample time for therapeutic intervention before the illness causes kidney failure.

He said the probiotic likely could be given to humans within the first three days of infection, however, there also would be an opportunity for prophylactic use in people who have been in contact with persons with the infection, or people who have eaten a suspected food source. Using antibiotics is not possible because they can increase the amount of toxin.

That research was published in 2000 in the journal Nature Medicine and generated interest, but drug development was never initiated. It also was published in Nature Reviews Microbiology, Gastroenterology and the Journal of Infectious Diseases. The investigators also have presented the research at numerous international scientific conferences and still receive invitations to present the information.

"The probiotic bacterium could be produced cheaply on a large scale. However, in spite of ongoing attention from the scientific and medical community, there has been a lack of interest from the commercial sector in taking this product forward into clinical trials," professor Paton said.

"If this had been done, and the probiotic had been proven to be safe and efficacious in humans, it could have been deployed during the current European outbreak. This would undoubtedly have saved lives, as well as millions of dollars in current and future health care costs."

Paton said that commercial partners are generally the only ones with enough money to fund both the clinical trials and the complex licensure and approval process. In addition, though the probiotic could be produced relatively cheaply on a large scale, the perception has been that E. coli infections are too infrequent to generate sufficient financial return on the original investment.

"Having said that, it will now be clear that governments can be liable for enormous costs in acute and on-going health care for victims of these outbreaks, as well as compensation for producers affected by recalls. Maybe public funding might now become available," Paton said.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
June 7, 2011
Last Updated:
June 8, 2011