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MIT researchers say cholera might be prevented, treated — with a probiotic

A municipal worker sprayed cholera antiseptics in a street in Sanaa, Yemen.
Mohammed Huwais/AFP/Getty Images
A municipal worker sprayed cholera antiseptics in a street in Sanaa, Yemen.

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology believe they have discovered a way to prevent cholera and treat early-stage cases using inexpensive probiotics, according to a study published Wednesday.

Cholera is a bacterial disease, typically spread by infected water, that causes extreme dehydration. In a study published in the journal Science Translational Medicine and led by MIT bioengineering professor James Collins, researchers discovered a mixture of natural and engineered bacteria that suppresses cholera bacteria.

The researchers first engineered a genetic circuit that detects a molecule produced by the microbe that causes cholera, turning on an enzyme that produces a red color. They tested the circuit in mice and were able to detect the red color when analyzing stool samples, Collins said.

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Collins said the researchers developed the diagnostic tool a few years ago but wanted to engineer “something that could be a living therapeutic” as well.

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“This was quite frustrating on our end as we faced a number of challenges,” he said. “Serendipitously, we discovered that L. lactis on its own could suppress cholera.”

L. lactis is a naturally occurring probiotic that, at first, researchers attempted to modify to treat the disease. Instead, they found that L. lactis on its own could kill the harmful bacteria because it produced lactic acid.

“Cholera really dislikes low-pH, or an acidic, environment,” Collins said.

The researchers found that in mice the L. lactis could prevent infections from developing — and treat the mice if the disease is detected early enough, Collins said. The probiotic has not yet been tested on humans with cholera, but Collins said he is confident it will have the same results.

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“It’s marvelous, and it’s something that could be in foodstuffs and thus could be relatively easily distributed and implemented,” he said.

Collins said the findings could have implications for other diseases as well because scientists were previously unaware that bacterial infections could be vulnerable to naturally occurring probiotics. In the future, his team hopes to pursue natural remedies for skin and lung infections.

Cholera has caused deadly epidemics throughout the ages. While it’s subsided in much of the world, it has persisted in some areas, with epidemics in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia in the past two decades and an outbreak in Haiti in 2010.

Laney Ruckstuhl can be reached at laney.ruckstuhl@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @laneyruckstuhl.