Illustration of an Escherichia coli bacterium. © HZI, Manfred Rohde

Growing bacteria to combat them

4 million euros funding for international project on urinary tract infections

Würzburg, April 1, 2022 – Some bacteria do not grow or grow very slowly, often rendering antibiotics ineffective. An international team, including the University of Würzburg, aims to find a new way to combat these bacteria.

Urinary tract infections (UTIs) are a worldwide health concern and are mainly caused by uropathogenic Escherichia coli (UPEC). Antibiotic therapy failure and the chronic nature of UTIs can be attributed to a small fraction of transiently non-growing bacterial cells called persisters. Since most antibiotics interfere with the bacterial cell division, persisters often survive antibiotic treatment.

This is where the new project “CRITICAL” coordinated by the Catholic University of Leuven takes action. Jörg Vogel from the Institute for Molecular Infection Biology (IMIB) of the University of Würzburg is part of the international research team. The project is awarded four million euros by the Belgian Research Foundation – Flanders (FWO). A total of 200,000 euros will be invested in research at the IMIB. The collaborative project has recently started its work and will continue for a period of 4 years.

Innovative strategy

The research team aims to accelerate the growth of UPEC persister cells. The increased cell division could render conventional antibiotics effective.

For this purpose, the growth of UPEC persisters will be investigated at the atomic level. The research team wants to identify genes and RNA molecules involved in the growth. In addition, the scientists plan to characterize regulatory molecules that influence persister activity. The Würzburg research team will focus on bacterial transcriptomics and single cell sequencing.

Exploring and transferring principles

The project is initially targeting UPEC. However, the aim is to also describe basic properties and principles of action of persistence. This approach could be used to develop treatment options for other bacterial diseases.

According to Jörg Vogel, who also heads the Helmholtz Institute for RNA-based Infection Research (HIRI), the project is of great importance: “Antibiotic resistance is one of the major challenges in infection research. It is important that we win in the arms race between medicine and pathogens. This international and multidisciplinary research project will provide new fundamental insights that might lead to novel therapies against bacterial diseases.”