The Battle Against Bacteria Goes Genetic

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Combine concern over salmonella food poisoning, fear that the arsenal of antibiotics may be losing its potency, and positive research over the potential of a genetic solution -- and a study published on Friday in the journal Science was bound to catch attention. The work of researchers at the University of California at Santa Barbara, the study revealed that removing or inactivating a gene called DAM in a certain strain of salmonella disabled the bacteriaís ability to cause disease in mice. The altered bacteria also went on to act like a vaccine, apparently activating the mouseís immune system to make antibodies. The groupís research, says TIME medical columnist Christine Gorman, underscores "a new push to see whether there is a design way around the bacteria problem."

While the results are tantalizing, Gorman cautions that they are far from conclusive, and years away from being proved safe and effective for human application. "Mouse models," she says, "donít always work in humans." Moreover, tinkering with genes poses special problems. "We donít know what the consequences are of disabling this gene," says Gorman. "Could it have consequences, for example, on a similar gene in the human body?" Until these more exotic endeavors pan out, Gorman emphasizes that one of the best ways to shore up our current defenses against bacteria may be simply to stop undercutting them. Doctors should stop prescribing antibiotics that are for diseases of viral origin. And patients should make sure to take their full doses of antibiotics to the end.