New supercharged antibiotics could help win war against superbugs

Published: 12 January 2018

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An old drug supercharged by researchers at the University of Queensland may be a new weapon in the battle against some of the world’s most dangerous superbugs, with researchers claiming it could destroy them.

The supercharged method led by Dr Mark Blaskovich and Professor Matt Cooper from UQ’s Institute for Molecular Bioscience (IMB), could also possibly give a new lease of life to other antibiotics and help fight the battle against bacteria that has become resistant to old antibiotics.

Dr Mark Blaskovich says the old drug vancomycin is still widely used to treat dangerous bacterial infections, however the bacteria are becoming increasingly resistant to it.

“The rise of vancomycin-resistant bacteria, and the number of patients dying from resistant infections that cannot be successfully treated, stimulated our team to look at ways to revitalise old antibiotics,” Dr Blaskovich said.

“We did this by modifying vancomycin’s membrane-binding properties to selectively bind to bacterial membranes rather than those of human cells, creating a series of supercharged vancomycin derivatives called vancapticins.”

Rebooted vancomycin has the potential to treat methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and vancomycin-resistant Enterococci (VRE).

Superbugs are currently responsible for approximately 700,000 deaths worldwide each year and a UK government review has predicted this could increase to a staggering 10 million by 2050.

Rather than throwing them out, researchers saw potential in re-engineering old antibiotics.

Pharmaceutical companies have pushed their focus away from antibiotic discovery according to Professor Cooper, because new antibiotics were difficult to find and are not as profitable as cholesterol-lowering medications or cancer treatments.

“Hence many scientists are re-engineering existing drugs to overcome bacterial resistance, rather than searching for new drugs,” Professor Cooper said.

“Drug development is normally focused on improving binding to a biological target, and rarely focuses on assessing membrane-binding properties.

“This approach worked with the vancapticins, and the question now is whether it can be used to revitalise other antibiotics that have lost effectiveness against resistant bacteria.

“Given the alarming rise of multi-drug resistant bacteria and the length of time it takes to develop a new antibiotic, we need to look at any solution that could fix the antibiotic drug discovery pipeline now.”