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Sugar-Coated Bacteria Cause Human Disease

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University of Adelaide researchers, in collaboration with Griffith University, have made a scientific discovery that will change the way scientists explore vaccine development and drug discovery for infectious diseases.

In a paper published recently the team show an entirely new way that pathogenic bacteria can initiate infection by using their surface sugars (or glycans) to attach the bacteria directly to sugars on the surface of human cells.

Previous to this paper, this interaction was either not thought possible or was considered a weak, non-important interaction.

The research was conducted by Associate Professor Renato Morona and Dr Elizabeth Tran from the University’s Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology in collaboration with Dr Chris Day, Professor Victoria Korolik and Professor Michael Jennings from Griffith University.

“As a result of the discovery we now have a better understanding of how bacteria initiate infections and how many current vaccines work,” says Associate Professor Renato Morona. 

“The discovery is fundamental knowledge that is broadly applicable to many other bacteria and microbes, and could have other translational outcomes such as new probes for studying human cells, and development of better infant milk formula.”

Associate Professor Morona’s laboratory showed that Shigella flexneri bacteria, which cause millions of episodes of dysentery in humans each year, use the sugars of their surface lipopolysaccharide molecules to stick to human gut cells.

No Shigella vaccines are currently available despite decades of research worldwide, and the bacteria can be resistant to many antibiotics. He believes this latest research will advance progress towards new vaccines and other ways to block the sugars.