First World War soldier aids in antibiotic research


A soldier from the First World War, who died almost 100 years ago, is helping scientists to understand how antibiotic resistance developed.

Private Ernest Cable, from the 2nd Battalion East Surrey Regiment, died on March 13, 1915 at the age of 28, from dysentery.

At the time, a sample of the bug which caused his death, a strain of the dysentery bacteria Shigella flexneri, termed NCTC1, was placed into storage for future research.

Public Health England’s National Collection of Type Cultures holds thousands of bacterial sites at their sites in Porton Down, Wiltshire and London and scientists have now been able to unlock the genetic code.

They found genes with resistance to penicillin, 25 years prior to the antibiotic becoming a common treatment for infections. It also indicated resistance to erythromycin, which is an antibiotic commonly used in the medical world today.

The research has been published in The Lancet medical journal and confirms that certain genes for antibiotic resistance were present long before drugs became commonplace in the treatment of infections.

Other genes for resistance and virulence which were missing from the dysentery bug of Private Cable were found in three other bacterial strains collected during 1954, 1984 and 2002.

The head of culture collection at Public Health England, Julie Russel, said it was tragic that Private Cable, along with many other soldiers during the First World War, died of dysentery because of the horrific conditions in the trenches. She said that it is unfortunate that a century later this bacteria is still the cause of death of hundreds of thousands people across the world, and the main reason for this is poor sanitation.

She added that methods, such as genome sequencing, can aid them to better understand the types of medications which will be effective by looking at bacterial genes, and may result in the development of a vaccine.

According to Ms Russel, genome sequencing has revolutionised overall understanding of viruses and bacteria and is already in use to help in understanding outbreaks of many infectious diseases.

Image Credit: Otis Historical Archives National Museum of Health and Medicine


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