In the world of medical research, the simplest answers can come from the strangest places. In the case of bacterial infections that take place after major burns, the answer may very well come from the sea.
Researchers at the Ohio State University College of Medicine, working with researchers in Norway, have landed a $1.4-million defense department grant to study the use of sea-produced brown algae and kelp to fight infections common to burns.
"The grant comes from the Department of Defense because of soldiers who suffer major burns in Afghanistan or Iraq," explains Dr. Chandan Sen, professor and vice chairman of research at OSUMC's Department of Surgery and one of the study's leaders. "Most of those burns get infected by bacteria like pseudomonas that thrive in desert areas. These bacteria form a biofilm, which defeats the kinds of antibiotics we typically use. They form a protective layer that antibiotics can't penetrate, and the infection gets worse. If you can't control the infection, ultimately it could lead to amputation or even death."
Though the genesis of the study was overseas casualties, the results of the study will have an impact worldwide. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, biofilms are linked to 60 percent of all chronic infections in the United States, even with its higher standard of health care. Pseudomonas itself was once responsible for more than half of all burn deaths in the U.S. Though that's no longer the case, the bacteria are living things, able to adapt. Over generations, they developed the ability to form the antibiotic-resistant biofilm.
The sea plants, Sen says, contain chemicals that have been shown to shut down the bacteria's ability to form that biofilm, once again making them vulnerable to common antibiotics.
"Once we can halt the production of the biofilm, we can kill the bacteria, and cure the infection," Sen points out. He doesn't find the answer to the biofilm problem odd, however.
"The fact of the matter is that bacteria are a part of nature and nature has its own way of controlling them," he says. Otherwise, bacteria would run rampant over the rest of the natural world.
"We humans can't produce the same chemicals, but nature has always had the answer," he says. "We're just looking to find a way to adapt nature's answer for use on humans."
The study, which has just begun and is expected to take a year to complete, includes researchers from OSU's Comprehensive Wound Care Center and the Dorothy M. Davis Heart and Lung Research Institute, along with their Norwegian colleagues.
Source: Dr. Chandan Sen, Ohio State University College of Medicine
Writer: Dave Malaska