‘Camouflaged’ superbugs are fooling our immune cells – and that’s very bad news

Superbugs are going to extreme lengths to hide from our immune system.

Superbugs are going to extreme lengths to hide from our immune system. Photo: Getty

Scientists have discovered that some bacteria are going incognito to trick the immune system and evade detection, creating life-threatening conditions for the infected.

Without effective treatment, these bandits-turned-masters of disguise are capable of spreading fatal infections in the heart valve, urinary tract or in the bloodstream.

The E. faecalis bacteria lives in the digestive tract and is generally harmless in healthy people. But, the germ can turn deadly when the immune system is compromised.

People who use antibiotics, hospital patients, the elderly and those with chronic health conditions are most at risk.

The bacteria is one of the so-called superbugs, which are dangerously becoming resistant to antibiotics.

The University of Sheffield sleuths, who released their findings on Friday, summed up the superbug’s modus operandi to The New Daily: 

“The bacteria is able to change its own cell surface in order to become undetectable to our immune systems, which allows it to then spread infection,” the authors explained.

“Unmodified, our immune system detects and engulfs bacteria. But because it can modify its cell wall it is able to hide.”

‘Opportunistic’ and highly resistant to antibiotics

Study lead Dr Stéphane Mesnage said the E. faecalis bacteria was an “opportunistic pathogen” fast-becoming resistant to the “last resort antibiotic” known as vancomycin.

Traditionally, if you caught this bug you might be treated with an antibiotic such as penicillin. However, this is no longer effective in many cases.

As a superbug, E. faecalis can now out-compete healthy bacteria in an infected person’s gut to cause an infection.

“The term ‘superbug’ doesn’t necessarily mean it cannot be treated by antibiotics and death or amputation is imminent,” ANU professor Frank Bowden wrote in The Conversation. 

“But it does mean most of our commonly used antibiotics will be ineffective. We’re forced to resort to antibiotics that are rarely used due to high cost, toxicity, and harmful side effects.”

But there is an upside: it is hoped the recent finding could pave the way for a new class of treatments to treat bacterial infections.

superbug E. faecalis

A computer-generated illustration of the culprit, E. faecalis. Photo: Getty

Drug-resistance reaching dangerous levels

Antibiotic resistance is a serious threat to global public health, and has escalated to dangerous levels, the World Health Organisation has warned.

Some of the most difficult to treat infections now include septicaemia, gonorrhoea, urinary tract infections, abdominal infections, skin infections and bacterial pneumonia.

Overuse and misuse of antibiotics is contributing to the drug-resistance problem, NPS MedicineWise says.

It recommends that people take the following steps to reduce antibiotic resistance:

  • Don’t request antibiotics for viruses, such as colds or flu, as they only apply to bacterial infections
  • Only take antibiotics as prescribed
  • Prevent the spread of germs in the first place by being extra vigilant about hand hygiene
  • Don’t keep leftover antibiotics
  • Don’t share antibiotics with anyone else
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