UTI Researchers Trying to Alleviate "Considerable Human Misery"

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ACUPUNCTURE: Smith at the University of Pennsylvania said a small pilot study of seven patients, in which participants had weekly acupuncture treatments for 12 weeks, found some evidence that it alleviated pain associated with interstitial cystitis, a painful bladder condition with discomfort but no clear evidence of infection. "Acupuncture is used a lot for stress reduction. A huge part of interstitial cystitis is exacerbations at the time of stress. When you think of it that way…a side effect of treating their stress would be less exacerbations of their cystitis," Smith said. However, she said, "this is really early. I don't think anyone is prescribing this for interstitial cystitis."

VACCINES: Mobley's vaccine aims to confer long-lasting immunity by targeting proteins that E. coli produces during an infection, including proteins the bacteria use to gather iron for energy. But his isn't the only vaccine approach to UTIs. Human studies of a promising vaccine developed at the University of Wisconsin stopped because of the $15 million price tag for a Phase III trial. "We tried to partner up with a pharmaceutical company. We thought they were going to be able to go ahead with it," said Walt Hopkins, a research professor in urology, who felt the vaccine had many acceptable aspects, notably that "there were almost no adverse effects seen in the women." He said the experimental vaccine contained heat-killed forms of "10 different types of bacteria that cause most UTIs," including six strains of E. coli, combined in a vaginal suppository. Hopkins explained that their approach, which would let a woman easily treat herself, took advantage of the body's mucosal immune system, which links mucus membranes of the vagina, bladder and other organs, and unleashes infection-fighting white cells that can intercept microbes before they can make someone ill. Phase II results with 75 women demonstrated that those women given an initial vaccination plus three boosters had fewer UTIs than women given a single dose, and fewer than women given a placebo. The effect of a single dose wore off in about six weeks; an initial dose plus boosters protected women for the six months of the trial, Hopkins said. He's still disappointed that the fruits of his labors never reached the 15 percent of women who have problems with recurrent bladder and kidney infections. "I'd say about every month or two, I get an e-mail from some woman looking for help with her infections. I have to say, 'I'm sorry, our trial is over and I can't offer you any additional options.'"

Many Women Experiment Until Finding Treatments That Work for Them

As they do with many other intractable health problems, patients often try a variety of treatments until they discover what works best for their bodies. For Lisa, 39, of Orlando, relief came when she ventured outside traditional infectious disease treatments.

A public relations professional, Lisa got her first UTI right after her divorce six years ago. "Every other month, I was on antibiotics," she said. At one point, she had discomfort in her bladder, but no detectable infection, and a urologist told her she had interstitial cystitis. He recommended limiting high-acid foods that could irritate her bladder, which she did; and a balloon-inflating procedure for her bladder, which she refused.

"That's when I reached out to alternative healing," she said. Lisa found a holistic practitioner who told her to eat simple foods like vegetables, chicken and fish, and give up sugars, alcohol and other foods thought to stimulate the growth of yeast. With the dietary changes and some probiotics, she felt immediate changes. But, she said, "it took me quite a few years before honestly I felt like I'd never get a UTI again."

She credits the acupuncture she began last year with finally eliminating her bladder problems, and believes a combination of alternative therapies have put them behind her. "It takes time; a lot more than taking drugs or surgery."

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