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Team Of Researchers Dig Up New Compound In An Unlikely Spot: Our Noses


Scientists in Germany have found a powerful new antibiotic hiding in a pretty unexpected place - the human nose. This discovery might suggest other unlikely places to look for effective medicines. Here's NPR's Joe Palca.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: There are a lot of bacteria living in our noses all the time - some nice and some not so nice. About a third of us have at least a few of the not-so-nice Staphylococcus aureus bacteria. They usually don't cause any problems if we're otherwise healthy. But can Staph aureus sometimes cause serious life threatening infections.

Scientists at the University of Tubingen in Germany wanted to know why so many of us don't have Staph aureus in our noses. What they found surprised them. One of the other bacteria in our noses was actually squirting out a compound that kills Staph aureus. Microbiologist Kim Lewis of Northeastern University says scientists have seen soil bacteria bumping each other off.

KIM LEWIS: But this is the first study that shows that that is happening in the human microbiome.

PALCA: And by microbiome, in this case, we're talking about the nose.

LEWIS: The nose, yeah.

PALCA: The German team calls the compound they found lugdunin. As they report in the journal Nature, lugdunin has the potential to become at therapy. They showed it could cure Staph aureus infections in mice. The team has applied for a patent. But even if this compound does prove medically useful, Kim Lewis says we shouldn't overstate its impact.

LEWIS: They've made an important discovery, but their study does not solve old problems. It does not address the antibiotic crisis that we are living through at the moment.

PALCA: Lewis says bacteria are becoming resistant to antibiotics much faster than new antibiotics are being discovered. He says the good news is the German results may spur interest in looking for other compounds bacteria use to do each other in. Joe Palca, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joe Palca is a science correspondent for NPR. Since joining NPR in 1992, Palca has covered a range of science topics — everything from biomedical research to astronomy. He is currently focused on the eponymous series, "Joe's Big Idea." Stories in the series explore the minds and motivations of scientists and inventors. Palca is also the founder of NPR Scicommers – A science communication collective.