MU researcher finds silver can combat deadly staph infection

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COLUMBIA - Research by a University of Missouri dean has discovered a new way to fight MRSA, a strain of staph bacteria that kills 20,000 Americans every year.

MRSA can be a life-threatening obstacle for surgeons and physicians during invasive procedures. If MRSA comes into contact with an open wound, it can spread quickly, destroying tissue and even bone.

What Elizabeth Loboa, dean of MU's College of Engineering, and her team of researchers discovered was a way to slow and prevent the spread of MRSA with the use of microscopic pieces of silver, while still regenerating bone.

Before looking into MRSA, Loboa had already been researching tissue engineering and regenerative medicine for almost 20 years, focusing on bone-forming stem cells. She began lab research in 2003, perfecting biomaterial to hold regenerative stem cells for placement in the body, known as scaffolding.

Loboa was afraid that during her stem cell procedures, patients could be at a higher risk of contracting MRSA. Her search for a MRSA-fighting material that wouldn't kill host stem cells led her to silver.

"It is harder for bacteria to evolve resistance to silver because silver ions really work from a different pathway. They almost mechanically disrupt the cellular machinery of these bacteria." Loboa said.

Once inserted into the wound, the scaffolding decomposes harmlessly in the body, giving time for the stem cells to grow into human cells. By adding silver ions to the biodegradable fibers, they could regenerate tissue and combat MRSA at the same time. 

MRSA infections, or Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, develop when staph bacteria has become resistant to antibiotics used to treat ordinary staph infections.

"From an evolutionary perspective, [bacteria] can evolve quickly to stressors in their environment," Loboa said.

MRSA became resistant overtime to antibiotics through prescription misuse and overuse.

"You just expose these bacteria enough to the same type of antibiotics over and over again and it just pushes them down that evolutionary pathway to become resistant," Loboa said.

Loboa didn't consider MRSA could be an issue for stem cell regeneration until her daughter contracted it in 2010.

"She came home from a camp with a sore on her leg that was really painful. It got really red and inflamed, and then it opened up, and it didn't look good," Loboa said. "I had not even thought about that from the standpoint of my research until my daughter came home with the infection."

MRSA infects almost 90,000 Americans every year. The bacteria has also seen a recent rise in cases as the infection has become more and more community acquired. The bacteria began as a complication on the operating table, but now it's just as easy to contract it through basic skin contact.

"Community acquired can happen from contact with someone who had an open sore," said Dwight Jones, a nurse practitioner for Urgent Care. "People that work out at gyms all the time, a lot of them I see coming in with MRSA."

Loboa said that eventually, her discoveries can make their way into every doctor's office and hospital to assist in the treatment of MRSA.

"I think this could be used in all sorts of bandages, and you don't ever need to remove these." Loboa said.

"Anything to help. Boy, if there's something that's effective that we could prescribe in an out-patient setting, that would be wonderful," Jones said.

Loboa's treatment fibers are currently being tested on animals, specifically pigs who share similar skin to humans.

"You need to be really careful that you've optimized your design, and everything you can possibly do in the lab before you go to an animal study." Loboa said. "Pig skin is the gold standard relative to human skin."

If studies continue to be successful, MU officials could request federal authority to begin human clinical trials within the next few years.