A Superbug Toxin Could Help Fight Infection

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Staphylococcus aureus Bacteria. SEM X40,000

A team of British and American researchers report that targeting a toxin produced by nearly all Staphylococcus aureus bacteria, including the “superbug” known as MRSA, could lead to potential new treatments for infection.

The study led by researchers at the University of Edinburgh finds that 95% of staph bacteria release a toxin called SEIX — one of a family of toxins known as superantigens — that triggers an extreme response by the body’s immune system and damages healthy cells. When invading bacteria release SEIX, it causes a rapid multiplication of immune cells that, in turn, can lead to high fever, toxic shock and potentially fatal lung infections.

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MRSA, or methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, releases different types of toxins, the researchers said, but SEIX was found to be produced by nearly all strains.

“If we can find ways to target this toxin, we can stop it from triggering an overreaction of the body’s immune system and prevent severe infections,” said lead research Dr. Ross Fitzgerald in a statement.

Antibiotic-resistant bacteria continue to be an area of major concern for clinicians, researchers and public health officials, so new ways to reduce severe infection in cases involving resistant bugs could help doctors improve patient care.

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The research was funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, the National Institutes of Health, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Pfizer Animal Health. It was published in PLoS Pathogens.

Meredith Melnick is a reporter at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @MeredithCM. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.