"Historically, in Western countries, classical strains of Klebsiella pneumoniae have caused infections mostly in sick, hospitalized patients whose host defense systems are compromised,” says Thomas Russo, MD, professor in the Department of Medicine at the UB School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences and head of its Infectious Disease Division.
"But in the last 10 to 15 years, a new variant of it has begun causing community-acquired infection in young, healthy individuals," he says. "This variant causes serious, life-threatening, invasive infections and is able to spread to other organs from the initial site of infection."
Perhaps most important, says Russo, these hypervirulent strains of Klebsiella pneumoniae have the potential to become highly resistant to antibiotics, similar to Escherichia coli and classical Klebsiella pneumoniae.
"These hypervirulent strains are the next ‘superbugs’ -in-waiting," he says. "If they become resistant to antibiotics, they will become difficult, if not impossible to treat."
With recent funding from the National Institutes of Health under a program to fund high-risk, high-reward research, Russo and his UB colleagues are studying the microbiology of the new variant of Klebsiella pneumoniae in an effort to identify the genes that make it hypervirulent so they can figure out how to stop it in its tracks.
"Infections due to highly resistant bacteria are becoming increasingly problematic," says Russo. "We are continually threatened by a ‘post-antibiotic’ era. The combination of a bacterium that is both highly virulent and resistant to antimicrobials is double-trouble."