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A Microbe to Keel-Haul Troubled Sinuses

Posted by Richard Conniff on February 19, 2013

Here’s a way to understand the stuffiness and thick nasal congestion of sinusitis: Imagine you are sailing some hulk of a freighter through the Sargasso Sea enveloped in a fog as thick as a pillow.

So the latest news from biomimicry fits just right.

Researchers who originally studied a marine microbe with the idea of using it to help strip crud off the hulls of ships have  instead discovered that they can use it to clean out troubled sinuses.

Here’s the press release from Newcastle University:

Feb. 18, 2013 — A team of scientists and surgeons from Newcastle are developing a new nasal spray from a marine microbe to help clear chronic sinusitis.

They are using an enzyme isolated from a marine bacterium Bacillus licheniformis found on the surface of seaweed, which the scientists at Newcastle University were originally researching for the purpose of cleaning the hulls of ships.

Publishing  recently in PLOS ONE, they describe how in many cases of chronic sinusitis the bacteria form a biofilm, a slimy protective barrier which can protect them from sprays or antibiotics. In vitro experiments showed that the enzyme, called NucB dispersed 58% of biofilms.

Dr Nicholas Jakubovics of Newcastle University said: “In effect, the enzyme breaks down the extracellular DNA, which is acting like a glue to hold the cells to the surface of the sinuses. In the lab, NucB cleared over half of the organisms we tested.”

Sinusitis with or without polyps is one of the most common reasons people go to their GP and affects more than 10% of adults in the UK and Europe. Mr Mohamed Reda Elbadawey, Consultant of Otolaryngology Head and Neck Surgery, Freeman Hospital — part of the Newcastle Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust — was prompted to contact the Newcastle University researchers after a student patient mentioned a lecture on the discovery of NucB and they are now working together to explore its medical potential.

Mr Elbadawey said: “Sinusitis is all too common and a huge burden on the NHS. For many people, symptoms include a blocked nose, nasal discharge or congestion, recurrent headaches, loss of the sense of smell and facial pain. While steroid nasal sprays and antibiotics can help some people, for the patients I see, they have not been effective and these patients have to undergo the stress of surgery. If we can develop an alternative we could benefit thousands of patients a year.”

In the research, the team collected mucous and sinus biopsy samples from 20 different patients and isolated between two and six different species of bacteria from each individual. 24 different strains were investigated in the laboratory and all produced biofilms containing significant amounts of extracellular DNA. Biofilms formed by 14 strains were disrupted by treatment with the novel bacterial deoxyribonuclease, NucB.

When under threat, bacteria shield themselves in a slimy protective barrier. This slimy layer, known as a biofilm, is made up of bacteria held together by a web of extracellular DNA which adheres the bacteria to each other and to a solid surface — in this case in the lining of the sinuses. The biofilm protects the bacteria from attack by antibiotics and makes it very difficult to clear them from the sinuses.

In previous studies of the marine bacterium Bacillus licheniformis, Newcastle University scientists led by marine microbiologist Professor Grant Burgess found that when the bacteria want to move on, they release an enzyme which breaks down the external DNA, breaking up the biofilm and releasing the bacteria from the web. When the enzyme NucB was purified and added to other biofilms it quickly dissolved the slime exposing the bacterial cells, leaving them vulnerable.

The team’s next step is to further test and develop the product and they are looking to set up collaboration with industry.

Journal Reference:  Robert C. Shields, Norehan Mokhtar, Michael Ford, Michael J. Hall, J. Grant Burgess, Mohamed Reda ElBadawey, Nicholas S. Jakubovics. Efficacy of a Marine Bacterial Nuclease against Biofilm Forming Microorganisms Isolated from Chronic Rhinosinusitis. PLOS ONE, 18 Feb 2013 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0055339

2 Responses to “A Microbe to Keel-Haul Troubled Sinuses”

  1. Cindy Feldman said

    Actually, this is a reply to the New York Times article on the importance of naturalists and how many medicines come from the natural world. Then you give a number of steps to supporting the natural world. Why do you and so many others today, not add population control, through individual awareness of population pressures? Is this a kind of political correctness that falsely attributes awareness of population pressures to an attitude that “they” not us should limit population?

    • Yes, a big and unfortunate omission, which others have also pointed out. But I think it was a product of throwing the list together at the list minute, at the request of an editor and perhaps also with an eye to things people could do that morning. Not sure I understand what you mean by this sentence, but I am not known for being political correct: “Is this a kind of political correctness that falsely attributes awareness of population pressures to an attitude that “they” not us should limit population?” In any case, thanks for reminding readers that limiting population is the really big deal.

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