Klebsiella bacteria in food supply may pose public health risk

TGen and George Washington University-led study is first to link Klebsiella-contaminated food to urinary and blood infections

PHOENIX, Ariz. - July 23, 2015 - The U.S. food safety system has traditionally focused on a few well-known bacteria like Listeria, Salmonella and Campylobacter, which cause millions of cases of food poisoning every year.

A study led by the Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen) and George Washington University, and published today in the scientific journal Clinical Infectious Diseases, suggests that the bacteria Klebsiella pneumoniae may need to be added to the list of risky microbes found in food products.

To better understand potential contributions of foodborne Klebsiella pneumonia to human clinical infections, the multi-center research team compared K. pneumoniae isolates from retail pork and poultry products and human clinical specimens to assess their similarity based on whole genome sequencing. They looked at turkey, chicken and pork products sold in nine major grocery stores in Flagstaff, Ariz., in 2012. During the same time period, the team analyzed urine and blood samples taken from Flagstaff area residents who were suffering from infections.

The researchers used whole-genome DNA sequencing to spell out the isolates' biochemical molecules. They compared the Klebsiella isolated in retailpork and poultry products with the Klebsiella isolated in patients and found that some isolate pairs were nearly identical.

Researchers also found that 47 percent of the 508 pork and poultry products purchased from grocery stores in 2012 harbored Klebsiella - and many of the strains recovered were resistant to antibiotics. In addition, researchers found the Klebsiella, including resistant strains, comprised 10 percent of the 1,728 positive cultures from patients with either urinary tract or blood infections.

"This study is the first to suggest that consumers can be exposed to potentially dangerous Klebsiella from contaminated pork and poultry," said Dr. Lance B. Price, Ph.D., lead author of the study and the Director of the Center for Food Microbiology and Environmental Health at TGen. "The U.S. government monitors food for only a limited number of bacterial species, but this study shows that focusing on the 'usual suspects' may not capture the full scope of foodborne pathogens.

"We hope that this research will open new avenues for preventing Klebsiella pneumoniae infections, which can be deadly - particularly in the elderly," Dr. Price said. "We need to find new ways to stop Klebsiella pneumoniae from spreading in the community, and food may be an important place to look."

The multi-center study was led by Price and other scientists at TGen's Pathogen Genomics Division in Flagstaff and at the Milken Institute School of Public Health at the George Washington University.

Also contributing to this study were the Flagstaff Medical Center, the VA Healthcare System-Minneapolis, Statens Serum Institut in Copenhagen, the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, the University of Minnesota.

"As an infectious disease doctor, I have encountered Klebsiella pneumoniae in my patients. We tend to think of this organism as being one that individuals carry naturally, or acquire from the environment," said Dr. James R. Johnson, M.D., a co-author of the study and a professor of Medicine at the University of Minnesota. "This research suggests that we also can pick up these bacteria from the food we eat."

Funding for this study, Intermingled Klebsiella pneumoniae populations between retail meats and human urinary tract infections, was provided by the Department of Defense Telemedicine and Advanced Technology Research Center, and by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

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About TGen
Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen) is a Phoenix, Arizona-based non-profit organization dedicated to conducting groundbreaking research with life changing results. TGen is focused on helping patients with cancer, neurological disorders and diabetes, through cutting edge translational research (the process of rapidly moving research towards patient benefit). TGen physicians and scientists work to unravel the genetic components of both common and rare complex diseases in adults and children. Working with collaborators in the scientific and medical communities literally worldwide, TGen makes a substantial contribution to help our patients through efficiency and effectiveness of the translational process. For more information, visit:www.tgen.org.

Press Contact:
Steve Yozwiak
TGen Senior Science Writer
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