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New weapon to fight superbugs

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Researchers have developed an antibiotic that could be a new weapon in the increasingly desperate global battle against the rise of superbugs.

The new treatment, developed by University of Adelaide scientists, targets a bacterial enzyme critical to metabolic processes, stopping infections in their tracks.

The compound is a protein inhibitor that binds to the enzyme – biotin protein ligase – stopping its action and interrupting the life cycle of the bacteria.

Researchers developed the new protein inhibitor using the ‘in situ click chemistry’ approach, where a selection of small molecules or precursor fragments are presented to bacteria in a way that the target protein enzyme itself builds the inhibiting compound and also binds with it.

Lead researcher Professor Andrew Abell said that, in a sense, the bacteria unwittingly chooses and assembles a compound that will stop its growth, not unlike building a weapon and using it against itself.

“We’ve gone a step further to specifically engineer the enzyme, so that it builds the best and most potent weapon,” Professor Abell said.

“Our results are promising. We’ve made the compounds; we know they bind and inhibit this enzyme, and we’ve shown they stop the growth of a range of bacteria in the laboratory,” he said. “The next critical step will be investigating their efficacy in an animal model.”

Professor Abell said the compound, although at an early stage of development, has the potential to become the first of a new class of antibiotics.

“Existing antibiotics target the bacterial cell membranes, but this potential new antibiotic operates in a completely different way,” Professor Abell said.

“Bacteria quickly build resistance against the known classes of antibiotics and this is causing a significant global health problem,” he said. “Preliminary results show that this new class of compound may be effective against a wide range of bacterial diseases, including tuberculosis, which has developed a restraint to all known antibiotics.”

The research was published in the journal of Chemical Science.

See also Hospitals on superbug front line, p23.

Kirsty Waterford