British university makes antibiotic resistance breakthrough


Charlie Cooper
Thursday 19 June 2014 13:42 BST
Colonies of a multi-resistant coliform bacteria (E.coli)
Colonies of a multi-resistant coliform bacteria (E.coli)

Scientists at a British university have claimed a breakthrough in the race to beat the global health threat of antibiotic resistance.

In research that could pave the way for an entirely new class of drugs to combat highly resistant “superbugs”, the scientists say they have found the “Achilles heel” of a major group of bacteria which includes E.coli and other potentially deadly species.

Antibiotic resistance – the process whereby bacteria evolve resistance to the drugs we use to treat them – is regarded by most experts as one of the gravest threats facing mankind, ranking alongside climate change and global terrorism. In Europe there are already estimated to be 25,000 deaths per year as a result of drug-resistant infections.

Developing new forms of antibiotics is seen as one of the key avenues for combating the threat. Now scientists at the University of East Anglia (UEA) say that they have discovered a way in which drugs could attack the cell membrane of one of the three major bacteria groups, known as gram negatives.

The membrane acts as a defensive barrier against attacks by the human immune system and antibiotic drugs. Exactly how the membrane is formed has not been well understood until now, but the new findings reveal how a crucial set of molecules called lipopolysaccharides are involved.

Scientists at UEA’s Norwich Medical School believe that if drugs could be developed to target these molecules, then membranes could not form, leaving the bacteria cell exposed to the body’s own immune system.

They also said that, because the drugs would not need to enter the bacteria itself, the bacteria may not be able to develop resistance, halting the evolution of superbugs.

Prof Changjiang Dong, who led the research, which is published in the journal Nature tomorrow, said that the discovery provided “the platform for urgently needed new generation drugs”.

However, the method will have to be tested on infection-causing bacteria, and would only work on gram negative bacteria, a group which includes E.coli and other potentially deadly superbugs such as Klebisella pneumoniae, which has infected hundreds of patients at UK hospitals in recent years.

“We should be excited about this research, because we are in a situation where we need to look at every possible [treatment] target we can come across,” said Mark Fielder, professor of microbiology at Kingston University. “What we need to do is take it forward and try it against clinically relevant organisms.”

However, he said it was not clear whether bacteria could evolve resistance even to the new generation of drugs.

“I think because [the new drugs would be] attacking such a vast area of the organism, the potential for mutation might be slowed, but I don’t think we could ever say it won’t evolve,” he said. “It is another step forward, another piece in our armoury to overcome the organisms. The more we understand, the better chance we have.”

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