31st July 2015
New antibiotics breakthrough
A potential new class of antibiotics based on modified sugar molecules is reported by scientists in Australia.
A special type of synthetic sugar could be the latest weapon in the fight against superbugs. Researchers from the University of Queensland and Queensland biotechnology company Alchemia have discovered a potential new class of antibiotics inspired by sugar molecules produced by bacteria.
New antibiotics to which bacteria are unlikely to develop resistance are urgently needed to combat the rise of drug-resistant "superbugs". Last year the World Health Organisation (WHO) issued a report warning that antimicrobial resistance is a major global threat to public health. It is no longer a prediction for the future, but is happening right now, in every region of the world.
This new research, led by Professor Matt Cooper and Dr Johannes Zuegg from UQ's Institute for Molecular Bioscience (IMB) in partnership with Alchemia, was published in scientific journal Nature Communications. Professor Cooper, Director of the IMB Centre for Superbug Solutions, said bacteria are less likely to become resistant to an antibiotic based on a modified version of their own sugar.
"Bacteria have cell walls similar to the walls of a brick house – except instead of mortar, the walls are held together by sugar polymers," he comments. “But if you add one of our modified sugar molecules, they stop the linking process, destroying the cell wall and killing the bacteria. The cell wall has been a target for antibiotics such as penicillin and vancomycin before, but the difference here is that we are stopping a centrally important part of the cell wall linking process.”
His colleague, Dr Zuegg said the team examined hundreds of versions of Alchemia’s modified sugar molecules to find those that will kill bacteria and are non-toxic to human cells:
“Most molecules screened to become drugs have a flat, planar shape, whereas these molecules are three dimensional,” Dr Zuegg said. “This means we can build on the sugar core in a variety of ways, to make thousands of different combinations in three-dimensional space.”
The team included researchers from the University of Warwick in the UK, Academia Sinica in Taiwan and Ghent University in Belgium. The work was supported by Australian and overseas organisations including Alchemia, the National Health and Medical Research Council, Bayer Animal Health and the Wellcome Trust.