A new breakthrough for the big C. diff

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Emily Mongan
Emily Mongan

For long-term care providers, there are few healthcare-associated infections as worrisome — or as deadly — as clostridium difficile. C. diff is responsible for an estimated 14,000 deaths in the U.S. each year, with 75% of those striking nursing home residents.

As if that weren't bad enough, a new strain of the bacteria has grown to epidemic levels over the past 15 years, killing up to 15% of those infected with it despite the use of antibiotics. To the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, this strain isn't just deadly — it's an “urgent threat.”

That's why research on the strain was so vital, according to a team of researchers from the University of Virginia School of Medicine. Similar to the way a football team might study its rival's weaknesses before a game, the UVA researchers set out to learn just how this strain of C. diff so easily crashed through the body's natural infection defenses.

A Ph.D. student by the name of Carrie Cowardin recently found that out, and has the study published in Nature Microbiology to prove it. Cowardin discovered that the strain produces a toxin that kills the body's protective gut cells, or eosinophils.

Like an army dismantling the walls of a fort, the strain is then free to spread throughout the patient.

“When the eosinophils were depleted with an antibody or by the toxin, we saw dramatically increased inflammation,” Cowardin said. “Restoring eosinophils by transferring them from a mouse that cannot recognize the toxin prevented the damage inflicted by the epidemic strain.”

Saving those protective cells could lessen the blow brought by this particular epidemic strain of C. diff. Researchers says Cowardin's research is “a huge and most needed advance,” and could lead to new approaches and treatments for the dreaded infection.

In an industry that relies on the quality of care it provides, and the health of the people it cares for, a study like Cowardin's shouldn't be written off as just another page in another academic journal. While it's true that a useable, approved treatment based on this research may still be years away, the fact of the matter is it will come someday.

So appreciate this breakthrough for what it is: the potential starting point for a treatment that may make the lives of your residents, and even your own lives, much better.

Follow Emily Mongan @emmongan.


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Daily Editors' Notes

McKnight's Daily Editors' Notes features commentary on the latest in long-term care news and issues. Entries are written by Editorial Director John O'Connor, Editor James M. Berklan, Senior Editor Elizabeth Newman and Staff Writer Marty Stempniak.