UCL News


Truce for germ warfare

2 March 2004

Professor Brian Henderson, head of the Cellular Microbiology Research Unit at UCL's Eastman Dental Institute, is leading research into how the millions of bacterial cells living on and in our bodies could be utilised as organic medicines.

More than 90% of the cells in the human body are bacteria. Even though the term 'bacteria' conjures up ideas of contamination and decay, of the 2,000 or so species of bacteria to which people play host, only around 40 species can cause disease. Recent scientific interest in the field has grown rapidly, coining a new term for these harmless organisms - 'cooperative bacteria'.

Professor Henderson explained: "We are all familiar with the advertisements for probiotic drinks containing 'friendly bacteria'. These products contain cooperative organisms such as lactobacili. Evidence is now emerging that a number of the bacteria that live with us can produce agents to inhibit inflammation, such as the organism producing tuberculosis. Therefore, it may be possible to employ cooperative bacteria in the quest to find novel agents for treating the many inflammatory diseases that plague humans."

Professor Henderson recently co-organised a symposium in Italy, which brought together a group of international experts, including UCL's Professor Rob Seymour (Mathematics) and Dr Greg Hurst (Biology). Delegates discussed cooperative bacteria and how it is possible for humans and animals to co-exist with the huge numbers and enormous diversity of bacteria that live on and in us.

Professor Henderson said: "This meeting was timely because of the realisation that we know almost nothing about the bacteria that share our daily lives. We really need to look at them in a new light. After all, we use them all the time in making food and beverages and in the production of drugs such as antibiotics. We have only scratched the surface of their potential use to us, so we need to develop a new approach to these tiny friends that live with us from cradle to grave."