Antibiotics are an integral part of any healthcare system, but their lifesaving capabilities are threatened by the rise of superbugs resistant to their effects. As a result, groups such as the World Health Organisation have warned that unless new antibiotics are developed soon, millions could die from simple infections that have been easily treatable for decades.

Now, however, researchers from University College Cork (UCC) have developed new molecules that they claim dramatically improve the effectiveness of these ageing antibiotics against several strains of infectious diseases. While new antibiotics remain a high priority, this breakthrough could buy humanity more time to find them.

Many bacteria have developed resistance to our current crop of antibiotics by producing biofilms that shield them from the effects of the medication. Writing in Future Medicinal Chemistry, the researchers said their new molecules interfere with the bacteria’s native communication system. This prevents the microbes from producing biofilm in the first place, enabling the antibiotic to treat the infection as normal.

In testing, the molecules made antibiotics 16 times more effective at treating an infection.

'Our work has significant potential'

Explaining how it works, they said that individual bacteria often communicate with one another in a colony through something called signal molecules. Different strains of infectious diseases use different signal molecules for communication in a similar way to different languages used by humans.

By analysing the native signal molecules, they were able to make molecular mimics that confuse the bacteria, preventing them from launching a counteroffensive against the antibiotic.

“As more microbes develop resistance to current antibiotics, and relatively few new antibiotics are coming to market, we need to identify new ways of dealing with resistant infections. The approach outlined in our work has significant potential,” said Dr Tim O’Sullivan, who led the research.

The researchers will now look to improve these new molecules and identify other strains of bacteria that could be targeted.

In addition to his team of Irish Research Council-funded postgraduate researcher Conor Horgan and Dr Pavan Kumar, a Marie Skłodowska-Curie postdoctoral fellow, the research grew out of an international collaboration with Dr Pol Huedo and microbiologists at the Autonomous University of Barcelona.

Colm Gorey
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