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updated 1/19/2012 2:36:49 PM ET 2012-01-19T19:36:49

A substance found in nuts and whole grains may someday help doctors fight the kind of food poisoning that sickened thousands of people in Europe last summer, a study in mice suggests.

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While a variety of germs can cause food poisoning, the European outbreak involved a dangerous strain of the bacterium E. coli. It infects people and pumps out a poison called Shiga toxin. Some other bacteria also produce this toxin, which overall causes more than 1 million deaths a year worldwide. The European food poisoning outbreak included about 4,000 people and 50 deaths.

There's no definitive treatment for Shiga toxin. But in Friday's issue of the journal Science, scientists report that they could protect mice against a lethal dose by injecting them with the mineral manganese.

The animals were injected daily, starting five days before they were exposed to the toxin. While untreated mice died within four days, the injected mice remained healthy. The manganese made the toxin vulnerable to being destroyed by cells.

Scientists still need to do more research before they can assess the usefulness of manganese in treating people. Manganese is already approved for medical use and it's inexpensive, they note. So that might make it especially useful in developing countries, where nearly all cases of Shiga toxin poisoning occur, wrote the researchers, from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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