A widespread problem
Urinary tract and bladder infections are among the most prevalent bacterial infections and can be quite painful. Fifty percent of all women are confronted by these unpleasant infections at some point in their lives. The disorder is an especially severe problem when it becomes chronic - whereby some patients experience symptoms almost continually. The Escherichia coli bacterium is responsible for 80% of these urinary tract infections. Treatment with antibiotics is possible but does not preclude a recurrence of the infection. In addition to this, more and more bacteria are becoming resistant to the antibiotics. For these reasons, scientists have been busy seeking another solution.
Prevention is better than cure
Julie Bouckaert and her co-researchers, under the direction of Henri De Greve, have discovered a way to prevent E. coli bacteria from adhering to the wall of the urinary tract, so that they can no longer cause infection. Because E. coli bacteria use very particular hair-like projections (called pili) to cling to tissues - the first stage of a potential inflammation - a drug that can prevent this attachment can also avert bladder and urinary tract inflammations.
Combating certain bonds
Bouckaert and De Greve have investigated the way in which the E. coli bacteria attach themselves. This attachment takes place by means of a reaction between the protein 'Adhesine FimH' on the tips of the pili and special receptors on the wall of the urinary tract. The researchers hypothesized that they could prevent this binding by administering a substance that would have a greater affinity with Adhesine FimH than with the receptors on the urinary tract. Then, the E. coli binding places would be so captivated by this particular substance that they would no longer be able to cling to the wall of the urinary tract.
Their search for such a substance proved fruitful. Via crystallography and affinity determinations, they demonstrated that the bacteria bind very strongly to the structure of the Heptyl-á-D-mannoside sugar. This binding is strong enough to prevent the bacteria from attaching themselves to the urinary tract wall. Therefore, administration of Heptyl-á-D-mannoside could prevent bladder infections. This finding opens possibilities for the development of a new medication for chronic urinary tract infections.
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Note to the Editor:
VIB, the Flanders Interuniversity Institute for Biotechnology, is a research institute where 800 scientists conduct gene technological research in a number of life-science domains, such as human health care and plant systems biology. Through a joint venture with four Flemish universities (Ghent University, the Catholic University of Leuven, the University of Antwerp, and the Free University of Brussels) and a solid funding program for strategic basic research, VIB unites the forces of nine university science departments in a single institute. Through its technology transfer activities, VIB strives to convert the research results into products for the benefit of consumers and patients. VIB also distributes scientifically substantiated information about all aspects of biotechnology to a broad public.