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Cigarette smoke causes superbug to become more drug resistant, study shows

Published on 30/07/19 at 03:33pm

Cigarette smoke can make certain strains of the bacteria Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) more resistant to antibiotics, according to a study published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Smoke from cigarettes can also make some strains Staphylococcus aureus more invasive and more persistent, the study says.

While Staphylococcus aureus is present in around 30%-60% of the global population, the antibiotic resistant bacteria can cause serious life-threatening infections in people with compromised immune systems.

The researchers hypothesise that cigarette smoke triggers an emergency response which increases the rate of mutation in microbial DNA. The process results in the rise of more resistant, more persistent and more invasive variants of Staphylococcus aureus.

In essence, exposure to cigarette smoke leads to the emergence of hardened sub-populations of the Staphylococcus aureus bacteria that are adapted to harsh conditions. The scientists call these sub-populations Small Colony Variants (SCVs).

Lead author Dr Maisem Laabei, from the University of Bath’s Department of Biology & Biochemistry, explained: “These Small Colony Variants are highly adhesive, invasive and persistent. They can sit around for a long time, are difficult to kick out, and are linked to chronic infections. We hope that our work provides another reason for people not to smoke and for current smokers to quit.”

She added: “We expected some effects but we didn’t anticipate smoke would affect drug-resistance to this degree. We recognise that exposure in a lab is different to inhaled smoke over a long time, but it seems reasonable to hypothesise, based on our research and others’ that stressful conditions imposed by smoking induce responses in microbial cells leading to adaptation to harsh conditions, with the net effect of increasing virulence and/or potential for infection.”

The researchers are now interested in investigating the ways in which air pollution interact with the microbes in our nasal passages.

Louis Goss

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