Saturday October 22, 2005
Right. Where were we? Oh yes: there is a small unaccredited laboratory in Northants called Chemsol, run by a man with a non-accredited correspondence-course PhD and no formal microbiology training, and he seems to find MRSA in hospitals where other accredited labs, in universities and the like, cannot. And, weirdly, almost every undercover tabloid journalist who gets an “MRSA hospital scandal” scoop involving positive swabs seems to have used this Chemsol operation. I include the Evening Standard, the Mail, the Sun, and of course the Mirror, for their fantastic “Mop Of Death” story.
So what is Dr Malyszewicz PhD finding on his swabs? It is a matter of public record, in Hansard and discussed in parliament no less, that various people have been trying to get samples out of Chemsol for years so that they can run their own tests. None had been forthcoming. Finally he released eight plates: I spoke to the microbiologists who tested them.
On six of the eight where Dr Malyszewicz PhD believed he had found MRSA, the lab found none at all. These plates were subjected to full-on forensic microbiological analyses. The first step was to take a few bacteria off the plate – you’d expect them to still be alive – and grow them on fresh plates. No MRSA. Then they did PCR (polymerase chain reaction) on them, part of the process commonly known as DNA fingerprinting. You use various enzymes to copy and copy and copy the strands of DNA, or “amplify” them, so that there is enough to examine it properly. (PCR, incidentally, was invented by LSD-toting punk genius Prof Kary Mullis: you can read his hilarious Nobel prize acceptance lecture here, and don’t say I never give you anything). So, even if the MRSA was dead, even if there had only been a tiny trace in the first place, PCR would find it. And on six plates, there were (note the plural, pedantic reader) none.
On two of the eight plates sent by Dr Malyszewicz PhD, there was indeed MRSA: it grew, and it showed up with PCR. But it was a very unusual type. Where was it from? This was a strain of MRSA that has never been found on a patient in the UK. In fact it has never before been seen in the UK. Using several DNA fingerprinting and sequencing techniques, they checked the genetic make-up against everything they could think of. They tried the library strains that professional microbiologists use to compare against and practise on. It was none of those. Finally they found it, on the MLST database at Imperial College London, which contains the gene sequence of almost all the MRSA strains ever found. It was an odd strain indeed, only ever found in Australia, and it’s a rare type even there. It is highly unlikely to have been out in the wild in the UK. It may have come from cross-contamination in the Chemsol lab, which of course does analysis work for Australian media toads as well.
And what of the other six plates? What was growing there? Not MRSA. A mixture of things, but mostly just bacilli, another group of common bacteria. Dr Malyszewicz PhD was unable to comment but suggested that “there was MRSA on those plates”. If you ever need to tell the difference between a bacillus and a staphylococcus: one looks like a rod, and the other looks like a ball. You’ll need a microscope that does about 100x magnification. The “Discovery World Great Value Microscope and Human Torso Set” at Argos is only Â£19.99, and should do the trick. In fact, instead of being one of those whining humanities graduates who goes on about how dreadfully non-generalist the British education system is, I suggest you go out and buy one right now, and blow your mind. It is Saturday, after all. And it’s another world down there.
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