Diversionary tactics are being developed by scientists from University of Adelaide in a bid to fool disease-causing gut bacteria that often lead to infections, such as cholera.
According to Professor James Paton, bacteria produce toxins that damage human tissues when they bind to complex sugar receptors displayed on the surface of cells in the host's intestine.
In the new study, researchers have shown how they had added molecular mimics of these host cell receptors onto the surface of harmless bacteria capable of surviving in the human gut.
If given during an infection caused by a toxin-producing bacterium, these "receptor-mimic probiotics" will bind the toxins in the gut very strongly, thereby preventing the toxins from interacting with receptors on host intestinal cells and causing disease.
An advantage of this approach to treatment is that the pathogenic bacteria are unlikely to develop a resistance to it, as that would destroy the basic mechanism by which they cause disease.
Moreover, receptor-mimic bacteria bind toxins more strongly than previous technologies.
They are also more cost effective, as the bacteria can be grown cheaply in large-scale fermenters.
"We initially developed this technology to prevent disease caused by strains of E. coli bacteria that produce Shiga toxin. These include the infamous E. coli O157 strain, which causes outbreaks of severe bloody diarrhoea and the potentially fatal haemolytic uraemic syndrome," said Paton.
"Our prototype receptor mimic probiotic provided 100% protection against otherwise fatal E. coli disease in an animal model. We have also developed similar receptor mimic probiotics that are capable of preventing cholera and travellers' diarrhoea.
"As well as being able to treat disease, these probiotics could be given to vulnerable populations following natural disasters to help prevent outbreaks of diseases like cholera," he added.
The findings were presented at the Society for General Microbiology's meeting at Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh.