BH3-mimetic drugs offer potential to treat Legionella infections
Posted: 8 March 2016 | Victoria White | No comments yet
Turning off BCL-XL with BH3-mimetic drugs killed Legionella-infected cells, allowing the infection to be cleared from the body…
A new class of drugs has shown promise for treating the bacteria that cause Legionnaires’ disease.
A research team including Dr James Vince of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, and Dr Thomas Naderer and PhD student Ms Mary Spier from the Monash University Biomedicine Discovery Institute, showed for the first time that a protein called BCL-XL is an Achilles’ heel of Legionella-infected cells. Turning off BCL-XL with BH3-mimetic drugs killed the infected cells, allowing the infection to be cleared from the body.
People become infected with Legionella bacteria by inhaling contaminated water droplets, often from cooling towers or spas, or contaminated soil. The bacteria hide within macrophages, escaping the body’s own immune defences and being shielded from many types of antibiotics. People with a weakened immune system, including the elderly, are at particular risk of the serious lung Legionella infection called Legionairres’ disease.
Dr Vince said that soon after infecting a macrophage, Legionella bacteria alter the composition of proteins within their host cell to prevent the host from detecting the infection.
“We were particularly interested that this drained the macrophage of a protein called MCL-1, that helps to keep cells alive,” he said. “The bacteria inadvertently leave BCL-XL as the only survival protein keeping the cell alive – a single point of failure at the molecular level.
“We exploited this vulnerability by treating Legionella-infected cells with BH3-mimetic drugs that switch off BCL-XL. These agents could specifically kill the infected macrophages, leaving uninfected macrophages untouched – exactly what you would want to happen if you were treating an infected person.”
First time BH3-mimetics used successfully to treat bacterial infections
BH3-mimetics drugs were initially developed to treat cancer, by switching off ‘survival’ proteins such as BCL-XL and MCL-1 that make cancer cells immortal.
“We were really excited to discover that BH3-mimetics can be used to treat serious Legionella lung infections, killing the infected cells and allowing the bacteria to be cleared from the body,” Dr Vince said.
He added: “This is the first time BH3-mimetics have been used to successfully treat bacterial infections.”
With the emergence of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria now posing a serious global health risk, new treatments for bacterial infections are urgently needed.
“In the future we are hopeful that BH3-mimetics may be a valuable new line of treatment for Legionella and other bacteria that similarly hide out within cells,” Dr Vince said.