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Scientists Warn Melioidosis Bacteria is Growing More Hardy

Colorado State University announced on Monday that scientists have discovered that the bacteria that causes melioidosis can develop a novel resistance to the antibiotic generally used to kill off the potential bioterror agent (see GSN , July 11, 2008).

A team of university scientists found that the bacteria Burkholderia pseudomallei was able to abandon one whole part of its genetic code, allowing it to withstand the antibiotic ceftazidime. The researchers pursued their study after physicians started to observe that routine treatment with the drug in multiple cases did not result in improved patient health.

"To see a bacterium remove large portions of its own DNA is surprising because it's almost like bacterial suicide," study co-leader Herbert Schweizer said in released comments. "The bacteria are weakened by this change -- evidenced by the fact that they grow very slowly in typical conditions. It's slow growth helped it elude proper treatment because it didn't show up on tests which depended upon seeing bacteria multiply in the test media that Burkholderia pseudomallei typically thrives in.

"This new mutant form of the bacterium we looked at in this study was likely responsible for a good portion of about 11 to 17 percent of the cases of melioidosis that did not respond to ceftazidime treatment," he continued.

It was unexpected to determine the bacteria could drastically change itself but still cause infection, said Schweizer, a member of the university's Microbiology, Immunology and Pathology Department.

Melioidosis is classified as a Category B biological agent due to its potential to cause massive disruption to public health.The Health and Human Services Department has made the development of new countermeasures agaiinst the bacteria a key priority. The pathogen has been studied by nations in the past for its potential applications as a biological weapon, according to the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center's Center for Biosecurity.

The bacteria is rarely seen in the United State but does turn up naturally in nations such as Australia, India and Thailand. It can be lethal even in small amounts.

The Colorado scientists believe their find wil assist the future development of melioidosis-fighting antibiotics as well as to shed light on how disease agents are able to overtime develop resistance to drug treatments (Colorado State University release, Oct. 3).

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