GALVESTON, Texas -- One of the most dangerous risks of contracting a serious bacterial infection is that the victim may develop sepsis--an overreaction by the immune system causing destructive inflammation throughout the body, often leading to heart and other organ failure and death. Even the best hospital intensive care units may be helpless to save patients stricken by severe sepsis. According to a 2003 study by Emory University and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, sepsis killed 120,491 hospitalized people in 2000. The same study found cases of sepsis in the U.S. have risen dramatically in recent decades, nearly tripling from 82.7 cases out of every 100,000 Americans in 1979 to 240.4 cases per 100,000 in 2000. Muppets creator Jim Henson died of the disease in 1990 at age 53.
Epidemiologists blame this large increase on the explosive rise in antibiotic-resistant bacteria caused by overuse of antibiotics as well as on the increasing numbers of people living with immune systems weakened by HIV, using immune-suppressive therapy for organ and bone marrow transplants, and receiving high-dose chemotherapy for cancer. Young children and elderly people are also at a higher risk for the condition because of their weaker immune systems.
Now, Assistant Professor Kota V. Ramana and Professor Satish Srivastava of the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston (UTMB) and their collaborators have discovered that in laboratory mice, blocking the activity of a single enzyme known as aldose reductase can short-circuit sepsis, protecting heart function and greatly reducing sepsis deaths. Moreover, the scientists have accomplished this feat using a chemical compound very similar to a diabetes drug already in stage three clinical trials in the United States, the final level of human experimentation before a drug is considered for federal licensing approval.