Deadly bug could kill you in 24 hours

A new Griffith University and Bond University study has uncovered details about a deadly bacteria which can kill humans in just 24 hours.

Burkholderia pseudomallei can be picked up by a simple sniff  and travel to the brain and spinal cord in just 24 hours.

The bacteria, which is found in soil in populated areas in northern Australia and southeast Asia, causes the potentially fatal disease melioidosis which kills 89,000 people around the world each year. In Australia a person with melioidosis has a 20-50 per cent chance of dying once it infects the brain.


Dr James St John, Head of Griffith’s Clem Jones Centre for Neurobiology and Stem Cell Research, said the scary bacteria could slip into your system without you even knowing it. “Imagine walking around and you sniff it up from the soil and the next day you’ve got this bacteria in your brain and damaging the spinal cord,” he said.

“It can be at a very low level, the body doesn’t even know it’s there. You could have it and don’t know it, that’s scary. It could just be sitting there waiting for an opportune moment, or it could just be doing small incremental damage over a lifetime. You could lose the function in your brain incrementally.”

Together with Associate Professor Jenny Ekberg from Bond University and Professor Ifor Beacham from the Institute for Glycomics, the team studied mice to find that the bacteria travels from the nerves in the nasal cavity before moving to the brain stem and then into the spinal cord.

Associate Professor Ekberg, from Bond’s Faculty of Health Sciences and Medicine, said it was frightening how easily and quickly the bacteria could get into the brain. “But what are the long term consequences? Do the bacteria hide away until sometime later and do little bits of incremental damage, or do they immediately cause full blown infection? We are now working on these questions.”

Previously, researchers did not understand how the bacteria travelled to the brain and spinal cord, or just how quickly. The findings, published in Immunity and Infection this week, could mean further discoveries in how the common staphylococcus and acne bacterium also end up in the spinal cord, as well as how chlamydia travels to the brain in Alzheimer’s patients. It could also provide answers for common back problems where bacteria have infected the bone, causing pain that could be simply treated with antibiotics.

Dr St John said: “What excites me most is the idea that other bacteria could also use this route,” he said.“Bacteria have been implicated as a major causative agent of some types of back pain. We now need to work out whether the bacteria that cause back pain also can enter the brainstem and spinal cord via the trigeminal nerve”.

By discovering the pathway, researchers will now work on ways to stimulate supporting cells that could remove the bacteria. Dr St John said the work was important as the bacteria had the potential to be used as a bioweapon and knowing how to combat it was extremely important.


For more information, read the full paper here