US Scientists Re-engineer Antibiotic to Fight Resistant Superbug

Wednesday 31st May 2017

One of the biggest infection risks currently facing the world are new strains of superbug that have become resistant to commonly used antibiotics. In order to challenge increasingly dangerous strains of resistant bacteria, the Scripps Research Institute team have re-engineered an antibiotic vital in fighting bacteria but has been rendered useless by a particularly hard to treat infection in order to avoid the risk of dangerous untreatable disease.

The disease in question is vancomycin-resistant enterococci, also known as VRE. It has been previously found in hospitals, causes bloodstream infections that can become very dangerous and is currently considered by the World Health Organisation to be one of the greatest threats to human health regarding drug-resistant bacteria. It is not entirely untreatable, as some other antibiotics do work against VRE, but the most common treatment was vancomycin, and what made it so dangerous is its resistance to a commonly used antibiotic.

Vancomycin is an antibiotic, first sold in the mid-1950s that is commonly used to fight complicated skin and bloodstream infections, including some strains of meningitis. It is the first line of defence used when doctors are facing life threatening infections that cannot be stopped by other bacteria, and the discovery of strains of bacteria such as VRE was considered a worst case, almost catastrophic scenario, potentially leading to a world where some diseases are simply untreatable.

This is what makes the research by the Scripps team so important is that they have made modifications to the molecular structure to vancomycin to tailor it specifically to killing bacteria. Specifically, three important changes have been made to make the drug better at destroying cell walls, which seriously hurts bacteria. According to lead research Dr Dale Boger, one change overcomes the current resistance to vancomycin, and two smaller changes were added which add extra ways to kill bacteria, making the antibiotic designed to stop resistance before a bacteria can form it.

In research laboratories, the modified vancomycin killed samples of VRE and managed to retain nearly its full potency even after 50 rounds of exposure to the VRE bacteria. Being able to use an antibiotic without the risk of developing resistances is incredibly important.

There are some caveats to keep in mind however. It has not been tested on animals nor people yet, so it is not cleared for use in hospitals, although given it is based on an older, better known drug will suggest a similar safety for use in humans. Indeed, the Scripps Research Institute have hoped that the drug will be ready for use within five years.

A lot has been written recently about the overuse of antibiotics for treating infections that could be treated by other means without risking the rise of resistance, however in this case vancomycin is only ever used as a last resort, so this particular antibiotic having resistances was particularly worrying. A version that is tailored to stop resistances can only be a positive thing when fighting life threatening infections.