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Genome sequencing allows doctors to stop spread of superbug

19 November 2012

By Emma Stoye

Appeared in BioNews 682

Genetic sequencing has been used to track and halt an outbreak of MRSA at an NHS hospital in Cambridge.

Although it's not the first time this approach has been successful (US researchers achieved a similar outcome with K. pneumoniae back in August, reported in BioNews 670) the study marks important progress in the struggle against a bacterial 'superbug' that plagues hospital wards up and down the country.

When twelve cases of MRSA - methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus - were diagnosed among babies at Addenbrooke's Hospital over a six month period, clinicians suspected an outbreak of the infection. Standard diagnosis protocols, however, could not indicate whether the cases were isolated or linked.

A group of researchers from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, the University of Cambridge and Cambridge University Hospitals decided to sequence and analyse the bacterial DNA taken from each of the patients. They found all of the cases to be genetically linked – confirming that particular MRSA strain as a novel outbreak.

The cases were treated and the ward underwent a deep clean, but two months later another case appeared. When researchers sequenced the MRSA's genome, they discovered it to be part of the same outbreak.

Knowing that the source of spread could be within the hospital itself, the team then screened 154 members of staff, and found one to be infected with MRSA. Sequence data confirmed that this case was part of the same outbreak, and the staff member was removed from the ward and treated with antibiotics before returning to work.

'We believe this brought the outbreak to a close', Dr Julian Parkhill from the Sanger Institute told the BBC.

With the cost of whole genome sequencing steadily falling (it has dropped from millions of pounds to around £50 per bacterium) this approach could become standard practice in future, helping to stop outbreaks before they become unmanageable.

'There is a real health and cost burden from hospital outbreaks and significant benefits to be gained from their prevention and swift containment', said Dr Parkhill.

Dr Nick Brown, an infection control doctor within the hospital, welcomed the breakthrough. 'We are always seeking ways to improve our patient care and wanted to explore the role that the latest sequencing technologies could play in the control of infections in hospitals', he said.

'What we have glimpsed through this pioneering study is a future in which new sequencing methods will help us to identify, manage and stop hospital outbreaks, and deliver even better patient care'.

University of Cambridge (press release) | 14 November 2012
BBC News | 14 November 2012
Cambridge News | 15 November 2012
Mining MRSA genetic code halts superbug outbreak
New Scientist | 14 November 2012
Wellcome Trust (press release) | 14 November 2012
Mail Online | 14 November 2012
The Lancet Infectious Diseases | 13 November 2012


17 March 2014 - by Chee Hoe Low 
Genome sequencing technology struggles to capture the complete genome accurately and reliably, a small study has found...
30 September 2013 - by Matthew Thomas 
DNA sequencing of Clostridium difficile samples reveals that the dangerous bacteria, which was previously predominantly transmitted in hospital, is now mostly being caught outside...
23 September 2013 - by Dr Kimberley Bryon-Dodd 
Researchers in the USA have developed a blood test that relies on genetic information from patients' immune systems to distinguish between viral and bacterial infections...
22 July 2013 - by Dr Kimberley Bryon-Dodd 
A test which looks at how active different genes are could help doctors determine whether a patient has a viral or bacterial infection...
10 December 2012 - by Antony Blackburn-Starza 
The UK Government has announced plans that will allow 100,000 NHS patients to have their whole genome sequenced over the next three to five years, as part of a move to boost economic growth in the life sciences industry...

28 August 2012 - by Holly Rogers 
An outbreak of a drug-resistant bacterial bug, which killed six people and infected 11 more, was stopped partially thanks to genome sequencing, a paper in Science Translational Medicine reports...
21 May 2012 - by James Brooks 
The emergence and spread of MRSA in the UK has been tracked thanks to genetic analysis of samples taken from infected patients over a 53-year period. The study, published in the journal PNAS, suggests that hospitals in large cities act as breeding grounds for new, increasingly resistant MRSA variants...
30 April 2012 - by Dr Victoria Burchell 
A gene identified in MRSA may contribute to the spread and virulence of the superbug. The gene - sasX - is located in a segment of DNA called a mobile genetic element and is capable of jumping from one bacterium to another...
13 June 2011 - by Dr Gabrielle Samuel 
A group of British and Danish scientists has identified a new strain of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), which has been found in cows and their milk. The new strain is also known to have infected 27 people in the UK and 24 in Denmark...
10 January 2010 - by Sarah Pritchard 
Researchers in the UK working toward a new initiative in the battle against so-called hospital 'superbugs' are developing a database containing the DNA of germs such as MRSA and clostridium difficile, to attempt to track and identify the source of disease....

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