Researchers at Western University are closing in on a potential killer, an antibiotic-resistant bacteria that can affect people with cystic fibrosis and compromised immune systems.

Omar El-Halfawy, a PhD candidate, and his team are studying a bacteria called Burkholderia cenocepacia, which nature has uniquely equipped to resist antibiotics.

"The healthy immune system can deal with it easily.  The problem is with patients with compromised immune systems," El-Halfawy says.

The bacteria is everywhere - in the soil, decaying flowers, rotting onions - most of us have come in contact with it, but infection hasn't been a problem because our immune system can fight it off.

However, in people with compromised immune systems, such as those with cystic fibrosis, the results can be devastating.

El-Halfawy explains, "It really shortens their life expectancy after getting this infection in particular."

Western researchers have been able to discover that stronger components of the bacteria communicate with weaker elements, effectively lending their support and making the bacteria more resistant to antibiotics.

"The important thing is we were able to decipher the means of communication they use to protect other bacteria."

For people with cystic fibrosis, infection with the bacteria is not only a problem medically, El-Halfawy says.

"The problem is it can be transferred from different patients with [cystic fibrosis], so there is a social effect too. They can infect each other."

The hope is that with greater understanding of how the bacteria work, researchers can stop the way it interferes with life-saving drugs like antibiotics.