What Happens When Your Immune System and Antibiotics Don't Work together?

Research from the lab of Brian Conlon, PhD, shows that as the innate immune system attacks Staphylococcus aureus, the immune system also stops antibiotics from being able to efficiently kill. This antagonism may lead antibiotics to fail.

What Happens When Your Immune System and Antibiotics Don't Work together? click to enlarge Confocal microscopy images show S. aureus strain HG003 (green) in the phagosome of a macrophage. (Nikki Wagner, Conlon lab)

December 19, 2019

Staphylococcus aureus causes a variety of infections, from skin and soft tissue infections to more serious infections including endocarditis, osteomyelitis, and bacteremia. While we have antibiotics to treat S. aureus infections, treatment failure is incredibly common. In 2017, S. aureus infections killed 20,000 people in the United States alone. So if we have antibiotics, why aren’t they working?

That's the question asked by scientists in the lab of Brian Conlon, PhD, assistant professor of microbiology and immunology at the UNC School of Medicine. Published in the journal Nature Microbiology, his lab's research shows that as the innate immune system attacks S. aureus, the immune system also stops antibiotics from being able to efficiently kill the invading bacteria. Conlon, senior author of the paper, said that this antagonism may lead to antibiotic treatment failure.

Now that his lab has parsed the details for how this antibiotic failure can occur, the researchers want to investigate the possibility of creating "host-directed" therapies to maximize antibiotic efficacy to clear bacterial infections. 

Co-first authors are Sarah Rowe, PhD, research assistant professor, and Nikki Wagner, MSc, research specialist and lab manager, both in the Conlon lab. Co-author Jenna Beam, a graduate student in the Conlon lab, published a "Behind the Paper" open access article as a companion piece.

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