‘Potent’ antibiotic drug boosts fight against superbugs

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Scientists have invented a potential drug candidate that successfully combats antibiotic-resistant “superbugs” in non-human tests, according to research.

The new antibiotic, known as cresomycin, is effective in mice against several bacteria that cause serious infections and are increasingly resistant to existing treatments, said a paper published in Science on Thursday.

“What is most important is that it kills antibiotic-resistant strains in animals,” said Yury Polikanov, co-author of the research and an associate professor of biological sciences at the University of Illinois Chicago. “It’s more potent [than its predecessors] — and more potent against deadly bacteria.”

Cresomycin’s synthesis is part of urgent research efforts to defeat anti-microbial resistance (AMR), which occurs when bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites evolve the ability to resist treatments.

AMR, largely caused by excessive use of antibiotics, is already linked to 5mn deaths a year, according to the World Health Organization. Hospitals are particularly susceptible to the spread of superbugs.

Cresomycin proved effective against a range of dangerous bacteria prominent in the spread of AMR, the paper said. These include: Staphylococcus aureus, which causes infections in the skin and other organs; Escherichia coli (E-coli), responsible for intestinal and urinary tract illnesses; and Pseudomonas aeruginosa, a trigger of blood and lung infections.

A big obstacle to dealing with AMR is that decades of under-investment in research has led to a lack of promising new synthetic antibiotics. Healthcare has long benefited from treatments derived from natural products, such as penicillins and cephalosporins obtained from moulds, but these are becoming increasingly ineffective as pathogens evolve to beat them.

The cresomycin paper’s authors acknowledged that the antibiotic problem was “daunting” but said their findings boosted hopes for “the future discovery of antibacterial agents broadly effective against AMR”.

The researchers took an existing antibiotic as cresomycin’s inspiration but then remodelled it and added extra features to deal with the changes AMR had caused in the target pathogens, Polikanov said.

The cresomycin test results looked “promising”, said Tim Walsh, an Oxford university professor and AMR expert. More data would be needed on the molecule’s effectiveness against the group of so-called Gram-negative bacteria, which are protected by an outer membrane and are a central problem in the spread of AMR, Walsh added.

“Until it is further scrutinised, it is difficult to predict the value of this new antibiotic against serious Gram-negative infections as a singular therapeutic,” said Walsh, who was not involved in the study. “But the elegant synthetic design of cresomycin, based on an intuitive rationale, provides an exciting scaffold for further development.”

Swiss pharmaceutical company Roche is conducting phase 1 clinical trials on an antibiotic that successfully targeted a Gram-negative bacterium known as carbapenem-resistant Acinetobacter baumannii, or Crab. Scientists said the candidate drug’s discovery, unveiled in a paper last month, could be the basis for research on whether it could be reformulated to target other antibiotic-resistant pathogens.  

Crab, which causes life-threatening illnesses in hospital patients, is classed as a priority concern by the WHO and an urgent threat by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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