News of the WeekMicrobiology

New Clues to Whooping Cough Pathology

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Science  06 Aug 1999:
Vol. 285, Issue 5429, pp. 811-812
DOI: 10.1126/science.285.5429.811b

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In the July issue of Cellular Microbiology, researchers provide a better understanding of how the whooping cough bacterium, Bordetella pertussis, causes the intense gasping cough that gives the disease its name. Using a tissue culture system in which the microbe causes the same type of damage as in humans, the researchers found that two toxic substances produced by B. pertussis work together to kill the ciliated cells in the epithelial lining of the respiratory tract that sweep away mucus. The toxins don't work directly, however. Instead, they incite neighboring cells to produce a noxious molecule, nitric oxide, which kills the ciliated cells by an as yet unknown mechanism. With the mucus-clearing cells destroyed, coughing provides the only way to clear the airways--a result that also helps spread the bacteria to new victims.