Scientists at the University of Brighton have found a potential new weapon in the war on infections by identifying the bacterial genes involved.
This new insight could lead to new methods of preventing infections and contribute to overcoming problems with antibiotic resistance.
The news comes after Prime Minister David Cameron's warning that the world could soon be "cast back into the dark ages of medicine" unless action is taken to tackle the growing threat of resistance to antibiotics.
The university scientists are examining the development of common infections that affect many hospital and nursing home patients.
A team led by Dr Brian Jones, at the university's School of Pharmacy and Biomolecular Sciences, has been studying infections associated with the use of urinary catheters, which are used in their millions across the world every year.
The research has focused on a particular species of bacteria called Proteus mirabilis, which is a common cause of these infections and leads to extensive encrustation and blockage of catheters by forming crystalline biofilms on catheter surfaces.
This, in turn, leads to the onset of serious complications such as kidney infection and septicaemia, one of the UK's biggest killers.
By identifying the bacterial genes involved in encrustation, the team aimed to identify targets that could be exploited to develop ways of preventing these infections.
Dr Jones said: "This strategy showed that genes associated with antibiotic resistance, known as efflux pumps, are involved in the ability of this organism to encrust catheters, and that blocking these may help prevent encrustation and also increase sensitivity to some antibiotics."
Dr Jones, currently serving as Head of Research Development at Queen Victoria Hospital in East Grinstead, said: "Our work provides the first evidence for a role of efflux systems in Proteus mirabilis catheter encrustation.
"Blocking these pumps is potentially a very exciting approach for developing strategies to help prevent these infections, and if successful could also make an important contribution to overcoming antibiotic resistance."
Dr Jones said more research was needed: "We are still at a very early stage in this work, and have a long way to go before we can be sure this will lead to an effective way to control these infections."The University of Brighton team's research has been published in the journals Infection and Immunity and in FEMS Microbiology Letters. Dr Jones's research has been funded by the Hospital Infection Society, the Medical Research Council, the Society for Applied Microbiology, and the University of Brighton.