World War I Soldier Gives New Clues to Fighting Dysentery

World War I Soldier Gives New Clues to Fighting Dysentery

World War I Soldier Gives New Clues to Fighting Dysentery

Sample of bacterium that killed British man in 1915 shows how germ changed over time, researchers say

SOURCE: Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, news release, Nov. 6, 2014

THURSDAY, Nov. 6, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- He died in war-torn France of dysentery almost a century ago, but a World War I soldier is giving today's scientists important new insights into the gastrointestinal disease.

Researchers focused on a bacterial sample retrieved from the British soldier -- Private Ernest Cable of the East Surrey Regiment -- who died in March of 1915. The scientists say their investigation could help find new ways to fight dysentery, which still kills hundreds of thousands of children younger than 5 each year.

"The historical perspectives we gain from samples like this are important because they provide the background information we need to understand infections today," study senior author Nick Thomson, of the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, in Cambridge, England, said in an institute news release.

According to the researchers, dysentery (bloody diarrhea) spreads in unsanitary conditions such as those that can occur in developing nations and war zones. "Huge numbers" of soldiers perished from dysentery in World War I, the researchers noted.

The genome of the dysentery-causing Shigella flexneri bacterium has now been decoded for the first time by researchers. The genome of the Cable sample -- the earliest sample of the bacterium ever preserved -- reveals the germ's natural resistance to drugs and how it has evolved to protect itself against modern antibiotics.

"Even before the description and widespread use of penicillin, this bacterium was resistant to it," study lead author Dr. Kate Baker, also from the Sanger Institute, said in the news release.

"While only 2 percent of the genome from this first sample differs from modern isolates, the changes that Shigella flexneri has acquired enable it to evade the antimicrobial treatments we use to fight it," she explained.

Thomson added that "there are two parts to this story: modern genomics has given us the power to untangle fine-scaled relationships between organisms and tell us how they have changed over time; linking this to a soldier who contracted the infection at the very beginning of World War I allowed us to focus on a very real human story that helps us navigate through what was such a monumental and complex period in our history."

The findings are reported in the Nov. 8 issue of The Lancet.

More information

The World Health Organization has more about dysentery.

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