The answer to one of the world's worst food-borne illnesses may be coming right out of Southeast Texas. Researchers at the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB)-Galveston have developed a possible vaccine for the E. coli virus, which is a cause of sickness and even death in humans around the world.
"Every year, we have an average of 5 to 6 different outbreaks in the United States associated with this bacteria," says Dr. Alfredo Torres, who is leading the research for UTMB-Galveston. Most people associate the spread of E. coli with contaminated beef, but it can also be carried in other foods. "In recent years, you may remember, there have been different outbreaks associated with consumption of peanuts or lettuce contaminated with E. coli," says Dr. Torres.
The most common symptoms of E. coli infection in humans are severe digestive problems including diarrhea, but other effects can be much more serious. "This E. coli produces a toxin, and this toxin can travel to the kidneys of the infected patients, particularly in infants and elderly people, and target the kidney and basically the kidney malfunctions," says Dr. Torres. "So this is a public health problem that we are trying to target." Dr. Torres and his researchers looked at the E. coli strains and were able to identify several antigens, which stimulate the body's immune response to fight the infection. They then narrowed down those antigens to ones that could possibly be developed into a vaccine.
While the findings are encouraging, Dr. Torres cautions that many of these "vaccine candidates" are new and have never been investigated before, so a lot more testing is required. "Perhaps in 3-5 years we can actually have some of these candidates being tested in phase one trials," he says. "That's the goal we're trying to reach."