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Bacterial Protein Found Effective Against Diarrheal Disease

FILE - An infant infected with rotavirus sleeps at the San Rafael hospital in Santa Tecla, El Salvador, Feb. 19, 2004.

Researchers are using a bacterial protein to both treat and prevent rotavirus, a viral infection that causes an estimated half-million deaths a year among young children.

A rotavirus vaccine that has reduced the number of cases in the U.S. and other Western countries by 90 percent does not work particularly well in the developing world. The reasons are unclear. Researchers think the vaccine is ineffective because of co-infections, which are common in less developed countries, or the type of bacterial flora that inhabit the children's digestive tracts.

The result, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is an estimated 500,000 deaths annually among children who are not protected against the diarrheal illness.

Now, researchers at the Institute for Biomedical Sciences at Georgia State University in Atlanta have discovered that a protein taken from a bacterium treats and prevents the disease extremely effectively.

Andrew Gewirtz, an immunologist at Georgia State, explains that the protein, called flagellin, prompted an immediate response.

Flagellin "is a very potent activator of the mucosal immune system," he said. "And it — at least in mice — confers a very strong protection to being infected by rotavirus. Or if a mouse is chronically infected with rotavirus, it results in rapid clearance of the infection.”

Gewirtz envisions using the bacterial protein, which much be injected, "to treat chronic infections and to provide temporary protection ... in the case of outbreaks of infectious disease where other measures were not available.” He said he expected human clinical trials to begin fairly soon.

The rotavirus treatment, reported in the journal Science, was developed in collaboration with researchers at Atlanta’s Emory University, Baylor College of Medicine in Texas, Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Tennessee, Pennsylvania State University and the biotech firm Genentech.