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A Wild Bet: Can inoculating newborns with innocuous strains of bacteria save them from deadly ones?

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Recently, one of Paul Cezanne’s missing paintings was rediscovered. The painting shows Paulin Paulet, a gardener on Cezanne’s family estate, looking at his poker cards. Cezanne painted Paulet as part of a series of paintings between 1890 and 1896. This particular painting is called A Card Player. It had not been seen since 1930; its whereabouts were unknown. When the owner of the painting came forward, the art world was agog. The painting was small but stunning. It sold for 19.1 million dollars at Sotheby’s. Hidden for decades, it was now among the more valuable pieces of art in the world.

I was thinking about this painting recently while reading through an old scientific paper (link). Like A Card Player, this paper seems to have a worth that is hard to calculate. It will not fetch millions of dollars (I got it for free from D.H. Hill Library) but it could improve millions of lives. It too features a gardener placing his bets.

The story begins in an undisclosed hospital in which newborns were getting skin lesions and other infections. A nurse in the hospital was inadvertently carrying a pathogenic strain of Staphylococcus bacteria (Staphylococcus aureus type 80/81, hereafter 80/81) from one newborn to the next. She had had contact with 28 newborns with the first 24 hours of their lives. Six of those newborns were colonized by the 80/81 strain. But the nurse also held and cared for 31 infants who were more than a day old. None of those infants was colonized by 80/81. Herein was a mystery in among the fates of newborns. It was a mystery to which Heinz Eichenwald, a professor at the University of Texas, Southwestern Medical Center, was drawn.

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