ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Now some good news, especially for babies around the world. Scientists in the U.S. and India have found an inexpensive treatment for a common infection. It could save hundreds of thousands of newborns each year. The treatment comes from a surprising source - bacteria found in fermented foods. As NPR's Michaeleen Doucleff reports, the bacteria helped babies in a clinical trial so much, researchers stopped the trial early.
MICHAELEEN DOUCLEFF, BYLINE: The top killer of newborns around the world is a deadly blood infection called sepsis. Dr. Panaki Panigrahi at the University of Nebraska Medical Center says sepsis can strike babies just a few days after they're born. And it happens fast.
PANAKI PANIGRAHI: That is the problem. They die so quickly.
DOUCLEFF: The baby seems fine, healthy. And then all of a sudden, it stops crying, stops breastfeeding. A few hours later, the baby is really sick.
PANIGRAHI: And by the time the mother has a chance to bring the baby to either the hospital or any kind of a health care facility, the baby dies.
DOUCLEFF: Each year, sepsis kills more than 600,000 newborns. That's more than 1,600 babies every day. Panigrahi says when you're at a hospital in India, it's overwhelming how many babies suffer from sepsis.
PANIGRAHI: You see so many are dying, or all of them are dying - kind of breaks your heart.
DOUCLEFF: So Panigrahi has dedicated his career to finding a way to prevent sepsis, to stop it before it happens. And now he has huge results.
PANIGRAHI: It has taken me about 20 years to get to this point.
DOUCLEFF: Panigrahi and his team report in the journal Nature that common bacteria can prevent sepsis in newborns - turns out the critters were sitting in our kitchen the whole time. The bacteria are called Lactobacillus plantarum, and they're used to make kimchi, pickles and fermented radishes. So you could literally grow this treatment in your kitchen.
PANIGRAHI: It can be manufactured in a very simple setting. And because of that, it is cheap.
DOUCLEFF: He estimates it costs about a dollar per baby. When babies eat the probiotic for about a week, it reduces the risk of death by 40 percent - from 9 percent to 5 percent. But that's not all. The probiotic also warded off several other infections, including those in the lungs.
PANIGRAHI: So that was a big surprise because we didn't think that it is going to work in a distant organ like lungs.
DOUCLEFF: OK. Now, if you think about what's going on here, it almost sounds counterintuitive. Sepsis is a bacterial infection. So the researchers are preventing a bacterial infection with bacteria. How is that possible? Well, Dr. Pacsal Lavoie studies babies' immune systems at BC Children's Hospital in Vancouver. He says these good bacteria sort of push out bad bacteria in the baby's gut. They also jump-start the immune system.
PASCAL LAVOIE: They would also promote maturation of the immune system of the baby in a healthier way.
DOUCLEFF: And the bacteria produce a compound that strengthens the wall of the intestine.
LAVOIE: It acts as a barrier or a wall that prevent the bad bacteria from going through.
DOUCLEFF: So these good bacteria are actually pretty powerful.
LAVOIE: Yes. And in a way, it's much more powerful than any drugs.
DOUCLEFF: But like drugs, the probiotic needs to be fully tested before it's used around the world. Lavoie says that means testing it in more places and on babies at highest risk for sepsis - those born prematurely or underweight. Michaeleen Doucleff, NPR News.
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