Making Old Antibiotics New Again

With antibiotic-resistant “superbugs” now infecting 2 million people per year and a dearth of new medications in the pipeline to treat them, University of Colorado Boulder researchers are taking a novel approach to addressing the looming public health crisis: They’re helping develop new drugs to make old drugs work better.

“We believe the compounds we’ve discovered have the potential to rejuvenate existing antibiotics—to make bacteria that are now insensitive to multiple drugs sensitive again,” said Corrie Detweiler, a professor of molecular, cellular and developmental biology (MCDB) who recently outlined her discovery in the journal PLOS Pathogens.

More than 23,000 people die annually in the United States from bacterial infections that have evolved to resist antibiotics. Thousands more suffer life-threatening bouts with once-easily treatable illnesses like strep throat, urinary tract infections and pneumonia. And some forms of tuberculosis and gonorrhea are now resistant to all available drugs.

“As our antibiotics work less and less, we risk essentially going back to a period 200 years ago when even a minor infection could mean death,” said Detweiler.

Meanwhile, most antibiotics still in use today were developed in the 1950s, as pharmaceutical companies have scaled back investment in research and development. The last time a new class of antibiotics hit the market was in 1984, according to the Pew Charitable Trust.

“With industry largely turning away, it’s up to academic labs like ours to step up and help feed the pipeline,” said Detweiler.

To that end, she recently developed a new technique called SAFIRE for screening for new small molecules with antimicrobial properties.

“The old way of discovering antibiotics helped us get to the low-hanging fruit, but that stopped working a long time ago,” she said.

Rather than pour potential new antibiotics into a test tube teeming with bacteria (as in the past) SAFIRE uses cutting-edge cell imaging techniques to observe what the compounds do to mammalian cells infected with bacteria over 18 hours. The method enables her laboratory to zero in on compounds that keep bacteria from replicating inside the host cell, but don’t harm the host.

Source: Infection Control Today


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