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Emerging findings about the role of zinc in the immune system could help the development of new non-antibiotic treatment strategies for bacterial diseases such as urinary tract infections (UTIs), according to latest research.

One of the most common bacterial infections worldwide, UTIs can lead to serious conditions such as kidney infection and sepsis.

A team of cross-institutional University of Queensland researchers recently examined how the immune system uses zinc to fight uropathogenic Escherichia coli (UPEC) – the major cause of UTIs.

Dr Ronan Kapetanovic said researchers confirmed zinc was toxic to bacteria and discovered UPEC had a two-pronged strategy to survive the body’s immune response.

“We found that compared to non-pathogenic bacteria, UPEC can evade the zinc toxicity response of macrophages, but these bacteria also show enhanced resistance to the toxic effects of zinc.

“These findings give us clues to how our immune system battles infections, and also potential avenues to develop treatments, such as blocking UPEC’s escape from zinc to make it more sensitive to this metal.

“Treatment strategies that don’t use antibiotics have the advantage of bacteria not developing resistance; if we can reprogram our immune cells to make them stronger, or change the way they respond to bacteria, we would be better equipped to fight superbugs.”

UQ’s School of Chemistry and Molecular Biosciences Dr Minh Duy Phan said the study also identified the full set of UPEC genes that provide protection against zinc toxicity.

“This knowledge provides another potential avenue for developing antimicrobial agents for the treatment of UTIs,” Dr Phan said.

Researchers suggest the methods used in the study could now be applied to a range of infectious diseases beyond UTIs.