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Extract from Antarctic Sponge Could Open New Front against MRSA

A sponge called Dendrilla membranosa is found near Palmer Station, Antarctica, and shows promise against MRSA, a sometimes fatal infection highly resistant to antibiotics. (Photo courtesy of Bill Baker)

A sponge that thrives in frigid Antarctic waters could provide a powerful new weapon against MRSA, a sometimes fatal infection that has become highly resistant to antibiotics.

Scientists from the University of South Florida Center for Drug Discovery and Innovation search the world for natural chemicals with pharmaceutical potential. Center director Bill Baker collected samples of a sponge called Dendrilla membranosa from the Southern Ocean. His team extracted a substance they named darwinolide, modified its chemical composition, and tested it against the bacteria that cause MRSA.

Writing in the journal Organic Letters, they report that only 1.6 percent of the bacteria survived and grew.

MRSA — methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus — was once a serious problem only in health care settings, such as hospitals and nursing homes. But the infection is now found in locker rooms, gyms and schools.

It is especially dangerous because it can cause infections almost anywhere in the body, from the skin to the lungs to the lining of the heart. It has developed resistance to the most powerful antibiotics in the medical arsenal.

MRSA bacteria, like many other bacteria, form a biofilm around them as a protective shell. Antibiotics have a hard time penetrating that shell to kill the bacteria inside. Darwinolide appears to attack the biofilm.

That, say the researchers, suggests "that darwinolide may present a highly suitable scaffold for the development of urgently needed, novel, anti-biofilm-specific antibiotics."

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