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Bacteria’s sleeper cells

New research, from scientists at Imperial College London, unravels how so-called bacterial persister cells manipulate our immune cells.

This can potentially open new avenues to finding ways of clearing these bacterial cells from the body, and stopping recurrence of infection.

The findings may help explain why some people suffer from repeated bouts of an illness, despite taking antibiotics.

The scientists studied bacterial cells of Salmonella called persisters.

Whenever bacteria such as Salmonella invade the body, many of the bugs enter a type of stand-by mode in response to attack by the body immune system, which means they are not killed by antibiotics.

These persister cells stop replicating and can remain in this dormant, ‘‘sleeper-cell’’ state for days, weeks or even months.

When antibiotic treatment has been stopped, if some of these bacterial cells spring back to life, they can trigger another infection.

Dr Sophie Helaine, senior author of the research explained: “Persisters are often the culprit for repeat or hard-to-treat infections. The classic scenario is a person suffers some type of illness – such as a urinary tract infection or ear infection, and takes antibiotics that stop the symptoms, only for infection to return a few weeks later.”

The scientists are now investigating if they can turn the tables against the bacteria by targeting the mechanism by which the persisters weaken our immune cells.

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