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New Study Reveals What Causes Most Urinary Tract Infections

March 05, 2016

Urinary tract infections (UTIs) are the second most common bodily infection, accounting for more than 8 million medical visits each year, according to the National Institutes of Health.

A UTI occurs when either the bladder, kidneys, ureters or urethra — which are all parts of the urinary system — become infected. UTIs often occur in the bladder and the urethra.

Now, a new study may shed light on why UTIs are so common and why the bacterium that causes these infections isn’t so quickly washed away from the urinary tract.

A form of E.coli, the bacterium causes up to 90 percent of UTIs and must withstand heavy urine flow and not be washed away to cause the infection. Researchers at the University of Virginia and London’s UCL/Birkbeck Institute of Structural and Molecular Biology discovered why this bacterium is able to attach itself so firmly to the urinary tract. By using a powerful microscope that showcases the anatomy and structure of individual cells and biomolecules, researchers could view and examine pili, “tiny-tentacle-like appendages” similar to a spring that uncoil and bend so that the bacteria can remain fixed to the urinary tract even during tremendous urine flow. The pili essentially serves as an anchor for the bacteria that causes UTIs.

Urinary tract infections are more common in women than men because of the shape and structure of the female anatomy, specifically because women have shorter urethras than men. Sex also can cause the infection. Most women have a 50-percent chance of getting a UTI in their lifetime. UTIs are typically treated with antibiotics that kill the infection-causing bacteria. We also tell patients to drink enough water to help flush the bacteria from their system.

This new discovery is so promising because it may help to develop new treatments for UTIs. Researchers previously weren’t able to visualize or examine the anatomy of pili. However, advances in microscope technology now allow them to view these organisms at a very high resolution. Having a view of the pili’s anatomy may enable the medical community to find new ways to stop the bacteria from sticking to the urinary tract and producing painful and severe infections. If researchers can discover new methods to prevent the pili from uncoiling and bending to attach to the urinary tract, bacteria should be washed away with urine flow, which would make UTIs less common.

More research still needs to be done, but this study is an encouraging sign that we can make treatment advancements, or better yet, prevent UTIs in the first place.