BIRMINGHAM, United Kingdom — Scientists have discovered yet another variety of E. coli, and this strain is both highly infectious and adept at resisting powerful antibiotics. This troubling new type of bacteria has already been at the center of two outbreaks in a children’s hospital in China.
The term E. coli refers to numerous forms of bacteria found in the environment, animals, and the human body. While the term usually carries a negative connotation in most people’s minds, most E. coli strains are actually harmless. Some strains, however, can cause various symptoms and illnesses, including diarrhea, pneumonia, and serious infections. This latest strain, a mutation of already antibiotic-resistant E. coli, appears resistant to certain existing antibiotics called carbapenems.
Researchers already identified strains of carbapenem-resistant Escherichia coli (CREC), noting it as one of the most worrisome and problematic antimicrobial bacteria in circulation. Specifically, the ST410 version became the most common resistant E. coli in Chinese hospitals between 2017 and 2021.
Fast forward to today, and this discovery of an even stronger and more infectious version of ST410 CREC (called B5/H24RxC) is now responsible for the dangerous outbreaks at the children’s hospital. An analysis performed on the B5/H24RxC strain in a lab revealed the bacteria is capable of growing at a faster rate and inflicting more damage on living organisms than earlier versions.
“It has often been thought that the E. coli that evolve to be most resistant to antibiotics do so at the cost of being able to cause infections in humans. Our incredibly important collaboration with our partners in China, funded by the MRC, has allowed us to discover and characterize this new clone of E. coli which is becoming both more antimicrobial resistant and more pathogenic,” says Professor Alan McNally, Director of the Institute of Microbiology and Infection at the University of Birmingham, in a media release.
“This is a worrying new trend and we would now urge surveillance labs across the world to be on the look out for this new clone which we know has spread beyond China.”
Researchers examined samples taken from hospitals located across 26 Chinese provinces between 2017 and 2021 in order to assess just how far the antibiotic-resistant E. coli had spread. Using a total of 388 CREC isolates collected from various clinical samples (blood, urine, sputum), the study authors successfully identified ST410 as the most common CREC. Additionally, considering the highest proportion of samples (111) originated from urine, researchers speculate there may be a connection involving urinary tract infections.
“Our study highlights the evolving landscape of antimicrobial resistance within clinically significant pathogens, such as E. coli, emphasizing the urgent need for collaborative efforts to address and mitigate this escalating challenge in global public health,” concludes Dr. Ibrahim Xiaoling Ba, Senior Research Associate in the Department of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Cambridge, and first author of the paper.
The study is published in the journal Nature Communications.
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