- Associated Press - Saturday, September 19, 2015

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - For the Hatch family, MRSA is personal.

Three years ago, a blister on the bottom of Bryant Hatch’s foot became a painful sore, then a raging infection.

The bacteria spread through his foot and ankle, decalcified his bones and resulted in him losing his leg.

“I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy,” Hatch said. “It was so painful.”

But that experience put MRSA - the antibiotic-resistant bacteria that kills thousands of people a year - in the crosshairs of two of his family members: his son-in-law, Brad Berges, who is a virologist at Brigham Young University, and Hatch’s son Jacob, a senior molecular biology student at the school.

Now, after a three-year study, they think they’ve found a type of virus that can kill MRSA and may open the door to a new avenue of treatment.

For 23-year-old Jacob Hatch, the research was a chance to make sense of a senseless tragedy.

“It’s totally changed his life,” Jacob Hatch said, describing how his once-active father gave up biking and retired early after MRSA cost him his leg. “He’s always been active and loves to do work around the house, and now . he can’t even walk too far.”

MRSA - or methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus - is contagious, deadly and resistant to most common antibiotics. It grows in grape-like clusters that stick together, creating a fortress of bacteria called “biofilm” that is resistant to penetration by most known antibiotics.

“It’s got all these nasty tricks to help it manipulate and subvert the immune system,” said Berges, an assistant professor of microbiology and molecular biology at BYU. He noted that MRSA secretes molecules that can find and kill your white blood cells, neutralize your antibodies and trigger your immune system to go into hyperdrive.

It’s picked up most commonly in the hospital by already-immunocompromised people like Bryant Hatch, who has struggled with foot problems and surgeries due to his diabetes.

And MRSA is growing increasingly resistant to antibiotics, even to vancomycin, the current gold standard treatment for the bacteria.

“It just makes you think of the ultimate bad guy from a superhero movie,” Berges said. “The more we throw antibiotics at them, the more they evolve.”

Berges said he turned his attention to a class of viruses called bacteriophage after learning of an undergraduate BYU class called Phage Hunters. In the class, students find and test bacteriophage - a group of viruses that replicate by infecting and killing bacteria. Last year, students in the class found a strain of bacteriophage that successfully kills a type of bacteria that devastates honeybee hives.

They were discovered almost a century ago, but were quickly abandoned in the U.S. and Western Europe after antibiotics were found to be easier to produce.

But with the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria such as MRSA, interest in “phage therapy” has been renewed.

The tiny viruses work by using their long tails as syringes to inject their DNA into a bacterial cell, destroying it and releasing thousands of new phage particles in return.

That’s why bacteriophage may be the solution, Berges said. Unlike antibiotics, they replicate, mutate and evolve. And because they do so faster than MRSA, they may be able to outsmart them.

“It’s biological warfare,” he said.

In Berges’ lab, the battle venue was the humble petri dish, where Hatch and about a dozen other researchers grew “lawns” of MRSA that they gathered from nasal swabs, athletic facilities and hospitals.

The challenger: multiple strains of bacteriophage, painstakingly collected and isolated by the students from samples of raw sewage, chicken feces and raw meat. Jacob Hatch’s job was to photograph and identify the bacteriophage, which are so small that they can only be seen using an electron microscope.

In the other corner: MRSA, a surprisingly benign-looking yellowish substance stored in test tubes in the lab.

In July, after 2 ½ years of work, Berges’ team published its findings in the journal PLOS One.

They had discovered 12 bacteriophage with MRSA-killing potential, some of which had decontaminated more than 90 percent of MRSA-infected glass and fabrics. The bacteriophage even penetrated the biofilm, something that antibiotics can’t do.

“It’s our entry into the field,” said Berges, who said their paper adds to a growing body of research that shows bacteriophage may be able to disinfect equipment and clothes before MRSA makes its way into the body.

Berges’ team plans to release more papers soon that will dig deeper into the types of viable bacteriophage they found.

“It’s not like we’re going to go out tomorrow and use bacteriophage to treat MRSA, but we’ve shown that this is a viable option,” Jacob Hatch said. “It’s been difficult, but the research has really been helpful in helping us feel like we can do something about it.”

As for Bryant Hatch, his recovery has been “anything but smooth,” according to his son. After the prosthesis caused another infection in his leg, Bryant Hatch became wheelchair-ridden, for six months of torture. The memory of a time when he could bound up the stairs in his house is still fresh. Now he has another prosthesis. But he still lags behind his son when they walk. His stride is still stiff, ungainly.

But Bryant Hatch has faced the situation with steadfastness and humor. He threw a “Footloose” party before his amputation. He gave up biking, but picked up stamp-collecting. He leans on his wife and children for strength.

And he is “very double extra proud” of his sons.

“(MRSA) got me while I wasn’t looking,” Bryant Hatch said. “And now we’re going to get it in a big way.”

___

Information from: Deseret News, http://www.deseretnews.com

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