Better testing could lead to improved treatment of antibiotic-resistant infections

Meghan May

August 11, 2017

A team of student researchers at the University of New England led by Associate Professor Meghan May, Ph.D., have discovered that antibiotic resistance is sometimes caused by ineffective lab tests. 

Despite the many advances in antibiotic treatment in medicine today, infection is still a leading cause of death in hospitals nationwide. Physicians frequently encounter infections that are resistant to commonly used antibiotics, forcing them to try multiple antibiotics in a quest to find one that will adequately treat their patient.

The UNE research team found that that certain cases of antibiotic resistance can be attributed to specific physiological conditions in a patient’s body. Without considering those conditions, the standard testing that is used to determine a patient’s treatment may not be pointing to the correct antibiotic for the infection. The team revealed their findings in a paper published in mSphere, a journal published by the American Society of Microbiology. 

Jane Carreiro, D.O., dean of the UNE College of Osteopathic Medicine commented, “This could be the first step in a critical change to the way in which we as physicians approach treatment.”

This research began when a patient at Indiana University Hospital presented with atypical pneumonia. Lab clinicians from Indiana University School of Medicine tested the bacteria against antibiotics commonly used to treat respiratory infections in an environment with ambient air and an environment with higher levels of carbon dioxide. In ambient air, the organism responded to treatment. In high levels of carbon dioxide, the organism was extremely resistant to treatment. Because the high carbon dioxide environment mimics the conditions in the lungs where the organism was causing the infection, these commonly used and often-effective antibiotics would not have helped to cure the infection.

The team at IU contacted May to take a closer look at the case. Over the course of the next year, she and four UNE students discovered two widespread antibiotic resistance genes in infectious organisms that can change based on various physiological conditions in the body. Beyond the significance of this discovery in the treatment of respiratory infections, this research raises important questions about how we determine treatment for infections.

“As a scientist, I began to look at our results and realize that there is likely a great deal of ineffective antibiotic treatment taking place, because doctors may not be equipped with the information they need to prescribe the antibiotics that would work best at the body site of the infection” said May. “If we can get physiologically relevant antibiotic testing conditions into clinical lab algorithms, I believe we can save lives.”

The team of student researchers includes Nathan Mullen (UNE COM, ’19), Hugo Raposo (UNE COM ’17), Linsey Barker (UNE COM ’17) and Polyxeni Gudis (UNE COM ’17).

Read the paper.

Read a story about the research in the Bangor Daily News.

To learn more about the University of New England’s College of Osteopathic Medicine, visit

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