Dr. Mark Blaskovich from UQ’s Institute for Molecular Bioscience (IMB). Source: University of QueenslandDr. Mark Blaskovich from UQ’s Institute for Molecular Bioscience (IMB). Source: University of QueenslandScientists from the University of Queensland are giving an old antibiotic new life.

Through a supercharging technique, scientists have been working to revitalize the antibiotic vancomycin. Though still regularly used to treat potentially deadly bacterial infections, bacteria are becoming more and more resistance to it.

Linked to 700,000 deaths a year worldwide, superbugs — otherwise known as antibiotic-resistant bacteria — are likely to increase that number to 10 million by 2050, according to a UK government review.

“The rise of vancomycin-resistant bacteria, and the number of patients dying from resistant infections that cannot be successfully treated, stimulated our team to look at ways to revitalise old antibiotics,” said Dr. Mark Blaskovich from UQ’s Institute for Molecular Bioscience (IMB).

“We did this by modifying vancomycin’s membrane-binding properties to selectively bind to bacterial membranes rather than those of human cells, creating a series of supercharged vancomycin derivatives called vancapticins.”

While the team explores how to apply the technique to revitalize other antibiotics, the reinvigorated vancomycin could potentially treat methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and vancomycin-resistant Enterococci (VRE).

According to Professor Matt Cooper from UQ’s Institute for Molecular Bioscience (IMB), many pharmaceutical companies are not taking part in antibiotic discovery, namely because new antibiotics are tough to find and not as profitable as cancer treatment or cholesterol-lowering medications.

“Hence many scientists are re-engineering existing drugs to overcome bacterial resistance, rather than searching for new drugs,” he said. “Drug development is normally focused on improving binding to a biological target, and rarely focuses on assessing membrane-binding properties. This approach worked with the vancapticins, and the question now is whether it can be used to revitalize other antibiotics that have lost effectiveness against resistant bacteria."

“Given the alarming rise of multi-drug resistant bacteria and the length of time it takes to develop a new antibiotic, we need to look at any solution that could fix the antibiotic drug discovery pipeline now,” Professor Cooper added.

The research is published in the journal Nature Communications.

To contact the author of this article, email mdonlon@globalspec.com