Little-known bug becoming epidemic

February 23, 2009 7:06:44 PM PST
Bay Area researchers are helping lead the fight against a little-known superbug being described by some hospitals as an epidemic.

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The bacteria Clostridium Difficile, or C. Diff, may not be a household name yet, but at hospitals around the country it is becoming a deadly threat.

A recent study found that on any given day more than 7,000 patients are suffering from a C. Diff infection. An estimated 300 will die from it.

"This is an organism that's been around for three decades, but really, in just the last five or six years, has become epidemic," said Dr. Fred Tenover with Cepheid.

Tenover directed research into drug-resistant germs at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He is now leading a team at Cepheid, a Sunnyvale company that developed a rapid DNA test to help hospitals spot the most toxic strains of C. Diff which attack the intestinal tract.

"This is an organism that can form very resistant spore, that is something that's resistant to disinfectants and to antibiotics," Tenover explained.

Since normal hospital cleaners will not kill the bacteria, it is often carried from room to room unknowingly by nurses and doctors.

Some hospitals have started isolating suspected patients and wiping their rooms and equipment with bleach, one of the few things that will kill C. Diff.

Destroying the bacteria in patients is also becoming increasingly difficult. The bug is showing increasing resistance to common antibiotics.

"Resistance is now becoming a problem to these two major antibiotics and the more we use it the more likely we're going to see resistance," said Dr. Jan Winetz at the Good Samaritan Hospital.

Winetz believes help could be on the way.

He is directing clinical trials of a new drug at Good Samaritan Hospital in San Jose called Par 101. It is a naturally-occurring compound that can attack the bacteria inside the intestines.

Dr. Winetz says, "It's specific for C. Difficile and actually more toxic to C. Difficile bacteria than the traditional antibiotics."

Double-blind clinical trials with Par 101 are taking place across the country and while the results are not yet available, Dr. Winetz says some intriguing patterns are emerging.

He also says finding an effective solution quickly is critical.

Epidemiologists believe C. Diff is about to become one of the most serious health threats to hit hospitals in decades.

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