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'Sleeper cells' may help in superbug fight

Scientists say they've discovered a type of cell which appears dead after antibiotics but then reanimates, and may be key to the fight against drug resistance.

Cells that can survive doses of antibiotics and lie resting in a dormant state may hold a key to understanding antibiotic resistance, researchers say.

A study found the vast majority of the 1.3 per cent of bacteria cells that survived treatment with the antibiotic ampicillin were live but not growing.

These cells have been dubbed "sleeper cells" as they look dormant and resemble cells that have been killed by antibiotics.

They cannot be detected by standard methods as they are non-growing, and are potentially dangerous as they can "wake up" then re-infect humans or animals.

Researchers at the University of Exeter used a miniaturised device to isolate and study single bacteria over time.

They were able to identify the dormant but viable "'sleeper cells" which appeared to be dead or dying after being treated with antibiotics.

The team found that "sleeper cells" have similar features to persister cells, which can also survive antibiotics, suggesting the two are linked.

Their unique fluorescence means that they can both be spotted even before being dosed with antibiotics.

Dr Stefano Pagliara, a biophysicist at the University of Exeter, said: "Our research should make it easier to develop biomarkers to isolate these cells and open up new ways to map the biochemical make-up of bacteria that can escape antibiotics, so we can find ways of targeting them effectively."

The research, published in the journal BMC Biology, is said to lay the foundations for understanding the special properties of both "sleeper" and persister cells.

Any bacteria posing a threat to human or animal health could be studied with the device used in the study, the researchers say.

Cells that survive antibiotic treatment can eventually divide, leading to a relapse of infection while increasing the risk of antibiotic resistance development.