Researchers say a treatment for antibiotic-resistant bacteria could be in the near future thanks to the evolution of viruses.
Microbiologist Vincent Fischetti, head of Rockefeller University’s Laboratory of Bacterial Pathogenesis and Immunology, said the holy grail of antibiotics research has been to kill bacteria without its developing a resistance to treatment.
This includes bacteria like methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and Bacillus anthracis, the bacteria that causes anthrax.
“We’re good at finding out what kills the bacteria, but we’re not as good at finding what the bacteria can’t change to become resistant to treatment,” Fischetti said in an interview with Healthline.
Now, he and other researchers believe they’ve identified a weak point in bacterial armor that can help stop otherwise treatment-resistant and potentially fatal infections. The new broad-range antibiotic is called Epimerox and is currently being developed by Astex Pharmaceuticals.
Testing Epimerox in Mice
Finding the right chemical compound meant pitting nature against itself by allowing certain kinds of viruses to infect bacteria through a specific weakness in its armor. These viruses, called phages, have been evolving for millions of years to infiltrate and kill bacteria.
“We’ve taken advantage of the evolution of viruses. It’s using nature versus nature,” Fischetti said. “We’ve found it's best when you don’t fight nature. Viruses have been around a lot longer than we have.”
In a process seven years in the making, researchers developed a compound phage-encoded molecule to target a bacterial enzyme called 2-epimerase.
Testing in lab rats revealed not only that Epimerox protected the animals from anthrax and MRSA, even when tested at laboratory maximum levels, but there was also no evidence of bacterial resistance to the drug.
“I think it’s very good news,” Fischetti said. “It could be an extremely big breakthrough in finding a new [drug] target.”
The last time microbiologists found a similar target antibiotics could exploit was in the 1980s. However, bacteria constantly evolve and eventually become resistant to antibiotic treatments, as they’ve done with penicillin since it was mass-produced in the 1940s.
Right now, researchers are re-engineering the virus molecules to make them more sensitive to the infected organism, whether it be a lab rat or a human. They hope to begin clinical trials of Epimerox within two years and, should the research prove fruitful, the drug treatment could be available within five years with a fast-track designation from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
The goal, Fischetti said, is to buy humans another 150 years before bacteria find a way to thwart this newest treatment.
Fischetti's research was published last week in the journal PLOS One.
The Need for Better Antibiotics
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) say that controlling the spread of life-threatening MRSA is one of their top priorities. While they say that MRSA infections have decreased, some researchers say infection rates have actually doubled in the past five years.
Fischetti says the threat of MRSA and other treatment-resistant bacterial infections continues to be a major health concern.
“We’re in a really dangerous situation,” he said. “You can go into a hospital right now and get one of these kinds of bacterial infections and there’s nothing we can do about it.”
One such strain of bacteria is carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae (CRE), which has been detected in 42 states. The best antibiotics currently available are no match for these infections, according to the CDC.
One factor that is encouraging antibiotic resistance is the overuse of antibiotics in livestock. A recent study found that MRSA can be transmitted from animals to humans, prompting U.S. Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) to reintroduce a bill to limit the use of antibiotics in livestock breeding. The House Energy & Commerce Committee is currently reviewing her legislation.