Listeria is one nasty pathogen. It tends to lay relatively low, in comparison to higher profile pathogens like E. coli and salmonella, but certainly knows how to make its presence known. In 2011 the bacteria cemented its place in public consciousness by being at the root of the deadliest food-borne outbreak in United States history, a cantaloupe infection that claimed the lives of 31 people and left well over a hundred more seriously ill. But the tides could finally be turning: according to a new report, a team of researchers at Cornell University claim that they may have hit upon an antibacterial compound that could grind Listeria growth to a screeching halt.
Food Safety News reports that Cornell’s researchers tested over 57,000 individual natural and synthetic compounds from MIT and Harvard’s Broad Institute compound archives, examining each one’s properties for the ability to shut down a Listeria bacterium’s defenses. The team isolated fourteen promising compounds, and from there were able to pick out the one compound that was most damaging to Listeria while remaining nontoxic to human cells – a compound called fluoro-phenyl-styrene-sulfonamide (or “FPSS” for short).
FPSS seems to work by preventing Listeria bacteria from going into defensive mode while under stress – thereby preventing it from effectively protecting itself against stomach acids, a lack of oxygen, and other hazards of an average person’s digestive tract.
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"The outbreak of Listeria in cantaloupes illustrated how much we still have to learn about the bacteria," Cornell dean and study co-author Kathryn J. Boor Ph.D. told Food Safety News. "This [discovery with FPSS] adds a whole new tool to our arsenal. The compound really shows considerable promise as a therapeutic down the road, but right now it's helping us understand the vulnerabilities of microbes like Listeria that have these incredible survival properties."
Even if studies do have a long way to go before a surefire treatment for Listeria becomes a reality, this particular study remains a landmark accomplishment. As food safety standards in this country tend to fluctuate, precautions are needed along every step of the way from production to purchase. That is something that will never change, no matter how strong our medicine gets (after all, superbugs have already shown the dangers of overmedication). But when all else fails, knowing that doctors will have the ability to disarm Listeria and save lives every day is a very comforting thought for the future.