Necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC) is a serious neonatal disorder of uncertain cause, although fecal bacteria have been implicated in some outbreaks. We examined coagulase-negative staphylococci (CONS) as possible etiologic agents. In our unit, CONS colonized the bowels of most infants studied, including 46% of 70 NEC cases (mean concentration, 10(9.1) CFU/g of stool). Over 90% of tested isolates produced a hemolysin resembling delta toxin of Staphylococcus aureus. Toxin purified from a NEC-associated isolate of Staphylococcus epidermidis resembled reference delta toxin from S. aureus in size, biologic properties, and antigenicity. This delta-like toxin was enteropathic, causing mucosal necrosis and hemorrhage in injected loops of the bowels of infant rats. Adjacent, nonexposed bowel remained normal, as did loops injected with lecithin-neutralized toxin. Using a new enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA), we detected delta-like toxin in the stools of 11 of 35 infants colonized with CONS positive for delta-like toxin (Tox+). Positive tests were strongly associated with NEC. Of 18 cases with Tox+ CONS, 10 were positive (56%), whereas only 1 of 17 control infants so colonized was positive (6%, P = 0.002). In NEC patients, the mean fecal toxin concentration was 1,012 ng/g. Toxicity to fibroblasts was demonstrable in filtrates of each of six ELISA-positive samples tested but was absent in all five ELISA-negative samples tested. We conclude that delta-like toxin is elaborated in the bowels of some infants with Tox+ CONS, and its association with NEC suggests that such CONS are enteropathic. In our unit, this mechanism was apparent in 23% of 44 recent cases of endemic NEC
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