Australian discovery brings hope in fight against superbugs

Researchers find compounds can act as a trail of breadcrumbs, attracting white blood cells to help combat antibiotic-resistant bacteria

Australian scientists have discovered a way of making drugs more effective against antibiotic-resistant bacteria, or superbugs.

A new method that heightens the body’s immune response to bacteria by harnessing cells of the innate immune system, has been studied.

In recent years, health professionals have noted a rise in bacterial infections that routine antibiotics can no longer effectively treat.

Antibiotic resistance has been described by experts as a threat as great as climate change. World Health Organization director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has called it “one of the most urgent challenges of our time”, warning last year that increased antibiotic use during the Covid-19 pandemic would ultimately lead to more deaths.

A United Nations report has previously predicted that, without new therapies, by 2050 drug-resistant diseases could result in 10 million deaths each year globally.

The Australian researchers linked compounds known as formylated peptides to vancomycin, an antibiotic commonly used to treat the hospital superbug MRSA.

The team tested the linked antibiotic-peptide combination on MRSA that had been isolated from a hospital patient.

Vancomycin bound to the cell wall of the bacteria, while the attached formylated peptides acted as a trail of breadcrumbs that attracted white blood cells to help combat the MRSA, the study’s lead author, Dr Jennifer Payne of Monash University, said.

In mouse models, the vancomycin-peptide combination was twice more effective than vancomycin alone at one-fifth of the usual dose, she said. “Being able to use less means that it’s cheaper, plus the fact that you avoid drug toxicity effects as well.”

The body’s immune system is ordinarily quite good at fighting bacteria, Payne said. “But some of these superbugs – what happens to them is they’re really good at hiding from our immune response.

“They can then … multiply, and that’s when we become sick. We then take antibiotics to try to kill off those bacteria, but if they’re already resistant, or they develop resistance during that treatment, it means the antibiotics can’t kill them either.

“Antibiotics have basically become the cornerstone of modern medicine, allowing us to perform surgeries and treat cancer patients,” Payne said.

In the absence of adequate research funding for new antibiotic drugs, complete antibiotic resistance “is already sitting on our doorstep – it’s kind of like the next pandemic,” she warned. “Basically, modern medicine would be plunged back into the dark ages if it does come about.”

The research, which was conducted in live mouse models and isolated human cells, is still some way off preclinical and clinical trials. The team hopes to be able to trial similar approaches with other types of antibiotic drugs.

The study was published in the journal Nature Communications.


Donna Lu

The GuardianTramp

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