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The BBC's Rachel Ellison
"Hospitals are assumed to be safe havens"
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Thursday, 19 April, 2001, 23:02 GMT 00:02 UK
Breakthrough in 'superbug' battle
genetic structure
The genetic structure of the bacterium was decoded
Japanese researchers have published the completed genomes of two antibiotic resistant strains of one of the world's most dangerous bacteria.

Staphylococcus aureus is the bug responsible for many hospital infections, and scientists are worried that some strains were acquiring high levels of resistance to virtually every available antibiotic.

The team from Juntendo University in Tokyo is the first to publish a complete guide to its entire genetic structure.

Now scientists can begin the long process of finding possible genetic targets for new vaccines and drugs.

Both of the strains are typed according to their resistance to antibiotics commonly used to treat them.

One of the sequenced strains is Methicillin-resistant (MRSA).

This so-called "superbug" is proving difficult to eradicate from UK hospitals because it is resistant to all but a few antibiotics.

The other is a Vancomycin-resistant strain, which is considered even more dangerous.

This has managed to mutate to resist even the antibiotic described as the "last line of defence" against such staph infections.

The scientists found many sections of the bug's DNA seemed to have been acquired from other organisms - some may even have come from humans.

This gives a clue as to how the bacterium has proved so successful in adapting to its environment and resisting drug treatments.

'Exciting breakthrough'

Dr Nick Day, a consultant in infectious disease at John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford, and a Wellcome Trust Fellow, is himself working to discover potential therapy or vaccine targets in the genetic structure of Staphylococcus aureus.

He said: "This is very exciting news - it's a real landmark finding.

"By identifying all the genes, we can find new genes which may actually be major disease-causing genes."

The Japanese team has beaten competition from the Sanger Centre in the UK and another centre in the US to produce the first complete Staphylococcus Aureus genome.

Many other disease-causing bacteria have been fully sequenced and the genetic information published for scientists to use.

One study has estimated that hospital-acquired infections, such as MRSA or even normal MSSA - the non-resistant form - cost the NHS 3bn a year in extra treatment and time spent in hospital.

The government has ordered hospitals to improve hygiene standards in an effort to cut the number of infections.

Details of the genomes have been published in the Lancet medical journal.

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See also:

08 Apr 01 | Health
Secrets of superbug success
13 Apr 01 | Health
Superbug 'beating' new antibiotic
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