Alta. scientists develop new tools in E. coli battle

Margaret Munro,  Canwest News Service

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Scientists have two new weapons against deadly E. coli bacteria - a vaccine to prevent cattle from shedding the microbe in the first place, and a technique for mopping up E. coli's toxins when people do get infected.

Researchers at the University of Alberta say they have developed "inhibitors" that should be able to grab onto and neutralize the potent toxins released by E. coli that contaminated the drinking water supply in Walkerton, Ont., in 2000 and has been making headlines again this month after an outbreak in the Ontario city of North Bay.

It was also announced Monday that a vaccine against the microbe is now available for use on Canadian beef and dairy cows. The vaccine, which grew out of research at the University of British Columbia, is designed to prevent infections in humans by reducing the amount of E. coli entering the environment.

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"Cows carry E. coli O157: H7 but they don't get sick. Where the disease comes from is people encountering contaminated food or water, usually from cow feces," said UBC microbiologist Brett Finlay in a statement. "If we block the colonization of cows by O157, we basically decrease the number that humans are exposed to, and thus, dropping the disease levels in humans."

Seven people died and more than 2,000 became ill after Walkerton's water supply was contaminated with E. coli that was traced back to cattle manure from a local farm.

The microbe is in the headlines again this month after an outbreak in North Bay. More than 200 people are reporting symptoms and there are almost 40 lab-confirmed cases of human illness associated with a Harvey's restaurant, including new cases in Quebec and B.C. Another outbreak of E. coli, involving iceberg lettuce, affected 50 people in Michigan, Illinois and Ontario in September.

Research in Finlay's lab led to the vaccine, called Econiche. It is produced by the biopharmaceutical company Bioniche Life Sciences Inc., which announced Monday the vaccine has received full licensing approval from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

The Edmonton-led team has taken a different approach, going after the toxins released by microbes that can cause severe, and in some cases lethal, organ damage in people who ingest contaminated meat, vegetables or water.

The inhibitors are designed to grab onto and neutralize bacterial toxins before they are released into the bloodstream, the University of Alberta team, led by chemist David Bundle, reported Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. They say the new inhibitors could be effective for many types of bacterial toxins, including E. coli.



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