MARQUETTE — A type of bacteria that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say has caused nearly half a million infections in patients in a single year was recently the focus of some research at the University of Michigan.

Clostridium difficile has some serious symptoms, and it can develop in patients whose intestinal flora — basically, good bacteria — has been compromised.

“People develop often fever, diarrhea, abdominal pain, and it’s related to the bacteria being able to take root in the intestine, particularly after antibiotics have been used and have sometimes compromised the normal bacteria that lie in our gut,” said Dr. Terry Frankovich, local Public Health Medical Director at the Marquette County Health Department.

C. difficile spreads via spores, which protect the bacterium outside of its unfortunate host, and allow for its spread, which often happens in a healthcare setting. A recent study done by scientists at the University of Michigan has shed some light on the life cycle of the bacteria, namely the time between when the bacteria population begins to grow and when it starts to both produce the toxin that results in symptoms and the spores that help it spread.

“Even though we had millions at 18 hours, we didn’t detect any of the toxin,” said Dr. Vincent Young, Associate Professor in the Infectious Diseases division of U of M’s Department of Internal Medicine. “We didn’t really start detecting the toxin until around 24 hours, so the bacteria had grown first, and now they receive some sort of a cue — and we’re not really sure what that is — that ‘well, we’re going to start producing this toxin,’ and roughly at the same time, we start to see the spores.”

This knowledge could eventually result in treatments to prevent the release of the toxins — and thus, the symptoms — during the time when the bacteria has not yet produced them.

“One important piece of information is that the life cycle of the bacteria within the gut is complicated, that there are different stages that as a population the bacteria seems to go through. So that gives us multiple areas in which we can try to intervene in different ways,” added Young.

This research is just part of many research initiatives, ranging from the macroscopic to the microscopic, that U of M scientists are undertaking to obtain a full understanding of the disease.

Currently, infection with the bacteria can be treated with specific antibiotics, and steps can be taken to help prevent it.

“From a prevention standpoint, we really encourage people to think about antibiotic use, and we encourage physicians to as well,” Frankovich added. “Overuse of antibiotics can contribute to this risk.”

[Photo courtesy CDC / Melissa Dankel from the CDC Public Health Image Library.]