Brintha Girinathan

Kansas State University doctoral student Brintha Parasumanna Girinathan has identified a protein that is essential for the transmission of a health care-associated infection, Clostridium difficile, or C. difficile. (Kansas State University photo

MANHATTAN — A common and serious infection sparked by antibiotic overuse is the major research focus for Kansas State University genetics doctoral student Brintha Parasumanna Girinathan, who has discovered the infection's essential protein: SinR.

The Indian American grad student said that Clostridium difficile, or C. difficile, is an unseen monster that resides in health care facilities. Infection can cause symptoms ranging from mild diarrhea to life-threatening toxic megacolon, which is a widening of the large intestine. According to the Centers for Disease Control, about 500,000 people in the U.S. caught the infection in 2011, and 29,000 died within 30 days of diagnosis.

"Such a prevalent and sometimes deadly disease needs more specific treatment, and our work identified SinR as a potential target for such a treatment," said Girinathan. "Now that my work has identified SinR as the necessary target, we know how to control this infection more efficiently."

C. difficile patients often get recurrent infections due to the presence of spores, which are the passive form of the bacterium. SinR is needed for spore formation; when Girinathan modified the protein, the bacteria was paralyzed and could no longer produce spores.

Antibiotics taken for an underlying condition worsen C. difficile infection for two reasons. First, they disrupt levels of harmful and helpful bacteria, the latter of which help to suppress C. difficile and keep other potential infections at bay. Second, antibiotics only treat C. difficile's active form, leaving the spores – dormant bacteria covered in shells that can withstand antibiotics – untouched.

Girinathan said her findings may help develop a vaccine or design a more specific drug to treat C. difficile.

Girinathan's research was recently published in mSphere, a journal of the American Society for Microbiology. 

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