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Novel Antibiotic Effective in Fighting Drug-Resistant 'Superbugs'

  • Jessica Berman

Ronald C. Montelaro, PhD (courtesy University of Pittsburgh Center for Vaccine Research)

Ronald C. Montelaro, PhD (courtesy University of Pittsburgh Center for Vaccine Research)

In the 1920s, the discovery of penicillin revolutionized the treatment of lethal infections. Today the challenge is how to battle bacteria that have become resistant to the drugs we use to fight them. Now, some University of Pittsburgh researchers have designed a synthetic compound that might hold promise in the fight against so-called "superbugs."

The novel, man-made antibiotic works in a completely different way than traditional antibiotics, according to University of Pittsburgh Center for Vaccine Research co-director Ron Montelaro.

“Antibiotics are drugs that typically poison the bacterial cell by blocking some metabolic process. These peptides work more by a physical action, by actually punching a hole in the bacterial membrane. So, it is a physical disruption as opposed to a poisoning of the bacterial cell," said Montelaro.

And finding new ways to kill drug-resistant bacteria that cause diseases like tuberculosis and pneumonia is becoming a medical necessity.

A study commissioned by the British government reported this month that drug-resistant bacteria could cause 10 million deaths a year and cost world governments billions of dollars.

The report blamed the rise of "superbugs" mainly on the overuse of antibiotics. Antibiotic use rose 40 percent between 2000 and 2010, according to the British report.

The World Health Organization reports there were some 450,000 cases of multi-drug-resistant TB alone in 2012.

The peptide designed by Montelaro’s team was modeled after the tail end of an HIV protein, which punches a hole in human immune cells to infect them.

The new synthetic peptides destroy bacteria in much the same way.

While two traditional antibiotics slowed or stopped about 50 percent of the bacteria tested, the man-made drug stopped about 90 percent.

Some of the testing was done on a blood-borne infection in mice, according to Montelaro.

“This is an infection we give the mice that is 100 percent fatal within 24 hours. And by giving this particular dose [of the experimental antibiotic], we were able to rescue 100 percent of the mice and not only keep them from dying, but show that we had completely removed any detectable bacteria in the mice," he said.

The findings were published in the journal Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy. The work was funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health.

Montelaro hopes to move to human clinical trials in the next couple of years, after finding a pharmaceutical company that might be interested in the synthetic peptide antibiotic.

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