December 2, 2023

University of Cincinnati Professor Studies Hamburger E. coli

A professor at the University of Cincinnati is studying hamburger E. coli with a National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) grant. The pathogen is E. coli O157:H7, which is sometimes called “hamburger E. coli” because many illnesses are attributed to that food-pathogen combination.

Hamburger E. coli

And indeed, an E. coli O157:H7 outbreak linked to ground beef sickened 7 people in 2016. Five people were hospitalized because they were so ill.

The pathogen is carried in the guts of ruminant animals, such as cows and goats. Those animals do not get sick, but they pass the E. coli bacteria in their feces. That feces can get onto the coat of the animal, and may be spread to the muscle during slaughter. When the beef is ground, the entire batch of hamburger can be contaminated.  Shiga toxin-producing E. coli infections sicken 265,000 people in the U.S. every year.

Dr. Allison Weiss, professor in the Department of Molecular Genetics, Biochemistry, and Microbiology in the UC College of Medicine won the 4 year grant. She said that E. coli O157:H7 infections are “a human specific disease, and it has been impossible to understand until we can study these human tissue models.”

She is using embryonic stem cells to create intestinal tissue that will be used to test for treatments for E. coli infections.

When a person ingests E. coli O157:H7 bacteria, the pathogen grows in the small intestine and colon. Shiga toxins attack red blood cells, causing damage to the kidneys and brain. The intestines are also attacked, sloughing off cells, which is why one of the primary symptoms of this illness is bloody diarrhea. Dr. Weiss and her colleague, Dr. Suman Pradhan, are hoping to look at exactly how the pathogen acts and how it harms human tissue.

Although most of these E. coli outbreaks are linked to hamburger, the pathogen has also caused illness through contamination of fruits and vegetables. For instance, there were two E. coli O157:H7 outbreaks in 2018 that were linked to romaine lettuce. And in 2017, an E. coli O157:H7 outbreak that sickened 32 was linked to I.M. Healthy Soynut Butter.



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