June 2, 2011 -- Researchers have discovered a new strain of antibiotic-resistant superbug bacteria in milk. This previously undetectable strain has also caused human infections.
The bacterium, a strain of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), appears to be relatively rare. It turns up in about 1% of MRSA cultured from humans in the U.K.
Researchers say it poses little threat to people who drink milk or eat dairy products like cheese, since pasteurization and digestion kill bacteria, including MRSA.
Any danger to people, researchers say, would likely come from contact with cows that carry the strain.
Whether or not the new strain may be present in cattle or milk in the U.S. is an open question.
"The main worry would be that these cows represent a pool of the bacteria and these bacteria end up colonizing people that work or live on farms and they take it out to the wider community," says study researcher Mark A. Holmes, VetMB, a senior lecturer in the department of veterinary science at the University of Cambridge, England.
Of greater concern, they say, is the fact that this new MRSA strain carries a gene that allows it to elude detection by current "gold standard" polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests that are favored by hospitals and labs for their speed.
"If you end up with a serious infection from this bacteria and your sample goes to a laboratory to be tested and the only means of testing they do is the PCR testing, you could be falsely negatively diagnosed, be given methicillin-like drugs to treat it, and they would be ineffective," says Holmes.
The study researchers identified the new strain because they tested for bacteria using two methods: one in which scientists swab bacteria on a gel food called agar that's dotted with antibiotic-impregnated discs to see if the drugs can kill the bacteria; and the second, PCR testing, which involves looking for a gene called mecA that makes the pathogen resistant to a host of antibiotics, including methicillin.
The agar plate test showed that new strain was antibiotic-resistant, but curiously, the PCR test did not find the mecA gene.
It wasn't until scientists sequenced the entire genome of the bacterium that they discovered the reason for the discrepancy.
The new strain had a copycat gene, called a homologue, which still conferred antibiotic resistance but couldn't be detected on PCR because it doesn't exactly match the reference sample.
Researchers say it's a problem akin to trying to search a document on a computer but misspelling the search term.
"If you're trying to find the word Staphylococcus in a great long document," Holmes says, "and you type in Staphylococcus in the search, it will find it if you spell it right, but if you actually get one letter wrong, it's not going to find it."