One of the fundamental ideas in ecology is that, depending on the environment and properties of individuals, some types of individuals can out compete other types. When this happens, the less successful individuals can become incompletely or completely displaced. In the 1960s, the idea of microbial competition was actively applied to clinical medicine in a fascinating series of studies, which ultimately ended in tragedy. These studies investigated an idea known as "bacterial interference": the inability of a strain of a bacterium, in this case Staphylococcus aureus, to colonize a particular site of a host following deliberate colonization of that site with another strain of the bacterium.
The notion of using bacterial interference for controlling or preventing epidemics of Staph in hospital nurseries was evaluated and several trials were carried out. How this idea came about and how the studies were done is fascinating and is described in Boris, 1968 and references therein. As the nose is one of the main ecological niches of Staph aureus in humans, newborns were deliberately colonized with an apparently apathogenic strain of Staph aureus (called "strain 502A", after the phage typing scheme then in use) by swabbing the nose and the umbilical stump shortly after birth.
The results were dramatic. Clinical and epidemiological observation revealed a striking lack of staphylococcal disease in the infant study population and in their families. As Shinefield et al 1966 summarized the situation:
It has been clearly demonstrated that artificial colonization of the nasal mucosa of newborns with one strain of Staphylococcus aureus interferes with subsequent acquisition of a second strain of S aureus. This deliberate colonization of infants shortly after birth with a staphylococcal strain of low virulence (strain 502A) has been employed to protect infants from colonization and disease with virulent epidemic strains of S aureus.The studies on children in university hospital environments were extended to children in a community hospital setting in Light et al, 1967, and found to be effective. Boris et al 1964 applied the idea to adults.
There were reservations discussed in the literature, however. An echo of that concern can be seen in an August 3, 1968, issue of the British Medical Journal, in a short report on a NEJM paper by Light et al describing observations of bacterial interference (not involving deliberate colonization) between Staph aureus and Pseudomonas. In the report, an anonymous author referred to the trials evaluating deliberate colonizations, mentioning that
Ethical objections have been raised to this procedure, but it seems no more objectionable from this standpoint than the use of living vaccines.Unfortunately, adverse effects soon became known, including a death from infection with the 502A strain. Writing in 1972,
An infant of a diabetic mother developed septicemia and meningitis, probably secondary to passing an umbilical vein catheter through the colonized umbilical stump. Staphylococcus aureus 502A and Escherichia coli were isolated from blood culture before death and from autopsy cultures of blood and peritoneum. A meningeal culture grew S aureus 502A. Gram-positive cocci were identified in liver, lung, heart, and meninges.They also noted that
Only two (0.5%) minor 502A infections were seen in 444 spontaneously colonized infants. The benefits of S aureus 502A programs far outweigh their hazards. Disease due to the 502A strain is more frequent when the inoculum applied to the infant is large than when it is kept below 4,000 bacteria. The fatal case emphasizes that bacteria of extremely low virulence may produce serious disease in compromised hosts and that catheterization through a contaminated umbilical stump may induce bacteremia.Although I haven't done an extensive search for bacterial interference programs after the publication of Houck et al 1972, these activities seem to have terminated after the death.
There are so many things to ponder regarding this curious episode in the 1960s, including how the one death in a few hundred patients, interpreted by Houck et al as a risk far outweighing the hazards, contrasts with current thresholds for attributable risk. Another is the remark that pathogens "of extremely low virulence may produce serious disease in compromised hosts", and how that notion is similar to the practice of avoiding live virus vaccines in recovering HSCT patients during immune system reconstitution.
Recently, Mukherjee and coworkers observed that the beneficial fungal yeast Pichia inhibits growth of pathogenic fungi, including Candida. Candida causes oral candidiasis (thrush) in immunocompromised and immunosuppressed patients. This is exciting; one of the study authors commented
One day, not only could this lead to topical treatment for thrush, but it could also lead to a formulation of therapeutics for systemic fungal infections in all immunocompromised patients . . . In addition to patients with HIV, this would also include very young patients and patients with cancer or diabetes.I think it's important to know about the history of bacterial interference interventions so that past issues can be recognized and actively avoided in related future investigations.
(image source: Wikipedia)