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Is staph infection a ‘time capsule’ from 1934?

Doctors from the University of Massachusetts Medical School say they have discovered a 78-year-old strain of staph bacteria in the leg of a patient who was first treated for the infection in 1934.

Doctors Dan Libraty and Chinmay Patkar, along with Brenda Torres of UMass Memorial Healthcare, wrote in a letter in the New England Journal of Medicine that they believe the staphylococcus aureus bacteria that led to a fracture in the woman’s femur in 2009 was not a new infection but a reactivation of the one she experienced as a child.

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“We think this reactivated bacteria is like a time capsule,” Libraty said. “It came from 1934.”

He can’t prove that with complete certainty, he said. But the vast majority of staph bacteria have become resistant to penicillin, which became widely used in American medicine after World War II. This bacteria was not resistant to penicillin or other antibiotics, Libraty said.

The woman was treated in 1934, at age 10, at Children’s Hospital Boston for a bone infection. In that time before antibiotics, treatment involved surgery to scoop out infected tissue and the infections often proved deadly. She was hospitalized for a year and a half but recovered, never experiencing a flare up of the bacteria until 2009, when she began experiencing pain in her leg.

The UMass doctors discovered a fracture caused by the infection. During surgery to install a metal rod in her leg, the doctors took samples of bacteria from a sinus tract in the leg, like a tube connecting the muscle and the skin, Libraty said.

This is not the first time that staph bacteria has been found to reactivate in a person decades after the initial infection, but Libraty believes it is one of the oldest. He said he has already encountered some cynics who don’t believe the bacteria is from 1934. It is possible that a new infection occurred where the old one had been, he said.

But he is hoping that, by writing about the bacteria, he might find staph researchers interested in further studying the bacteria’s genome, to better understand the evolution of the strains of bacteria that have developed since then.

Dr. David Hooper, chief of the infection control unit at Massachusetts General Hospital, said it is well known that staph aureus can persist in the human body for decades.

The letter’s findings highlight “how well adapted a pathogen staph aureus is, persisting and having been a human pathogen of some repute for an exceedingly long period,” likely many thousands of years, Hooper said.

The authors used gene sequencing to identify the bacterial strain and link it to strains that are common today.

“It’s just better documentation of the sequence of strains having first been susceptible and then having acquired penicillin resistance,” Hooper said. “It’s more historical microbiology.”

Chelsea Conaboy can be reached at cconaboy@boston.com. Follow her on Twitter @cconaboy.
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