The bacterium, known as Streptococcus pyogenes, is also the leading cause of serious flesh-eating disease, known as necrotizing fasciitis, which occurs in as many as 1,200 people each year in the United States and in 200,000 people worldwide. Although rare, the infection, which burrows deep under the skin and eats into connective tissue and muscle, is notoriously hard to diagnose and treat promptly and can rapidly become fatal.
What enables this bacterium to foil the body’s defenses and wreak such massive tissue damage?
So far, the answer has remained elusive, but new research, led by Harvard Medical School scientists and conducted in mice, provides intriguing insight into the tactics used by S. pyogenes and points to several new ways to contain it.
Findings of the federally funded study, published May 10 in Cell, reveal that, to ensure its survival, the germ hijacks neurons and exploits the normal communication that occurs between the nervous and immune systems during injury or infection.
The study also suggests two distinct approaches involving nerve modulation to avert disease and treat these infections in mice. If replicated successfully in larger animals and in humans, these treatments could be used to block the germ’s dangerous moves, prevent widespread infections and halt disease progression.
Journal reference: Cell