OSU finds vitamin B3 may help in fight against antibiotic-resistant infection

Here’s the ironic thing: In some ways, Adrian Gombart really is primarily a vitamin D guy.

In fact, a good portion of Gombart’s career has been spent studying the properties and uses of vitamin D. It’s all part of his work as an associate professor with Oregon State University’s Linus Pauling Institute.

But that didn’t stop him and a team of researchers from taking an interesting detour to take a long look at another vitamin – B3. The resulting study, which earned national attention, reported that high doses of the vitamin may be effective in fighting some of the antibiotic-resistant staph infections that are increasingly common.

The study does not have any implications for diet – and, in fact, Gombart and his fellow researchers emphasized that people should not start taking high doses of the vitamin. “We don’t propose that people should go out and buy bottles of B3,” he said.

And more work, including studies on humans, needs to be done to follow up on the findings.

But the fact remains that the study opens up an intriguing potential avenue of attack against the so-called “superbugs,” which are increasingly common in hospitals and nursing homes.

One of the key ideas behind the research involved neutrophils, specialized white blood cells that “sit in the body and look for pathogens” to attack, Gombart said. The neutrophils are key players in the immune system, a long-running area of interest for Gombart: Some 10 years ago, he discovered a human genetic mutation that makes people more susceptible to bacterial infections.

Gombart and his colleagues started looking at a number of conditions in which neutrophils aren’t particularly effective at killing pathogens, and the question naturally arose: Are there ways to restore the killing power of the neutrophils?

The researchers started looking at a variety of compounds that might help the neutrophils. One of those was nicotinamide, a form of vitamin B3.

The results from the B3 testing: High doses of the vitamin increased by 1,000 times the ability of the cells to kill the staph bacteria.

It’s not unusual for researchers to use such high doses in their work, Gombart said: “We tend to go with high doses of things when we’re studying things.” But the doses studied are amounts that have been used safely in humans as a drug for other purposes.

That helps to explain the interest in the study, which was published last month in the Journal of Clinical Investigation. Researchers from Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, UCLA and other institutions helped on the study, which was funded by grants from the National Institutes of Health.

Gombart said that he’s fielded questions from reporters nationwide – not to mention queries from doctors looking for better ways to fight staph infections. Gombart can’t do much in those cases, other than to explain the research and its limitations.

One idea is combine the doses of B3, to increase the killing power of the neutrophils, with antibiotics that would directly target the staph bacteria.

But he cautioned that much more research needs to be done, including trials on humans – and he understands that additional research likely will be done by others.

“I’m a basic research scientist,” he said. “I understand that there will be limits to where I can go with things. You can’t do everything. … I’ll be interested in seeing what will come from this.”

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