For the first time in scientific history, a team of University of Michigan Medical School researchers have found a way to prevent urinary tract infections in mice — a breakthrough which could have significant implications for UTI treatment in the future.

UTIs are a common infection that traditionally occur when bacteria enter and infect the urinary tract, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Women and girls tend to be at a higher risk for getting a UTI than men. According to the CDC, half of all women experience a symptomatic UTI in their lifetime, though sexual activity, pregnancy and age also increase susceptibility.

Typically, UTIs are treated with antibiotics. However, through use of a trial vaccination which uses the same molecules that UTI bacteria are normally attracted to, researchers have been able to track how uropathogenic E.coli, which causes a majority of the infections, become resistant to traditional UTI antibiotics. The research, conducted by Henry Mobley — senior author of the paper and chair of the Department of Microbiology and Immunology — along with Laura Mike, research fellow, and other researchers, could potentially lead to a new treatment method. The research  was funded by the National Institute of Health as well as a research scholars fellowship from the American Urological Association.

Published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Mike said researchers feel this discovery of the use of the molecules — formally called siderophores — can provide protection from UTIs. This research goes in conjunction with their previous work, which used proteins from the bacteria in vaccination efforts.

Researchers first tested the use of siderophore vaccination by applying the bacteria inside the noses of test mice over a three week period. Once the mouse developed immunity, they applied the bacteria directly to the mouse bladders, as UTIs first develop in the bladder and kidneys.  

When treated with each siderophore individually, there were moderate results for protection against UTI development. However, according to the paper, with the administration of both siderophores and the carrier protein, there were much more noticeable results.

Mike said the researchers had also identified protein receptors on the surface of the bacteria prior to testing the vaccination.

“What those receptors are doing, though, are taking the small molecules that are stealing iron from us during the infection so the bacteria can have iron, and so we wondered if we could actually use those small molecules instead of just the protein and get protection in our mouse model as well,” Mike said.

Though the method is not yet ready for humans, Mike said the research shows promise for human UTI treatment.

“This is a starting point to then go forward in terms of future vaccine development, so we were really excited to at least some protection in the urinary tract,” Mike said.

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