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 (Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus) and clostridium difficile, to attempt to track and identify the source of disease.
The research team, led by Derrick Crook, a clinical microbiologist at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford, aim to sequence the DNA of patients as they fall ill with such bugs as MRSA, compare the results with samples held in the database, and work out whether the patient had the bug before they arrived in hospital or whether they picked it up in a ward. 'We want to forensically describe how germs are transmitted, and work out better ways of intervening and interrupting that transmission', he explained, adding: 'This will help us to identify emerging threats, and may give us an understanding of which genetic changes in germs are harmful and which are not'.
Matching DNA from patients' germs with samples from their surroundings should help doctors stop an outbreak of infection, and even identify whether particular members of hospital staff may be spreading disease through poor hygiene, The Times newspaper reporters write.
The initiative is funded by the UK Clinical Research Collaboration, and includes bacterial species such as Staphylococcus aureus which encompasses antibiotic-resistant strains of MRSA, and the norovirus which causes winter vomiting sickness. It is now possible to read the genetic code for multiple examples of the same germs without incurring great cost; as the DNA strains and lineage are added to the database, new samples can be compared to track their likely origins.
Peter Donnelly, from the Wellcome Trust Center for Human Genetics at the University of Oxford said: 'If someone gets a bug in hospital, you want to know whether they've brought it in with them or picked it up on the ward. Genomics should be able to tell us.' It is hoped that something like family trees will be constructed using the genetic mutations found in germs' DNA: 'in a sense, it is like genetic fingerprinting', he said.