Scientists in race to beat superbugs

Last updated 05:00 22/07/2014

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The war against drug-resistant superbugs is being lost, but Wellington scientists won't surrender and are working on new, cheap antibiotics that could help stem the emerging global health crisis.

Victoria University microbiologists are working on a breakthrough in bio-synthesised antibiotics, ultimately aiming to create new, affordable antibiotics that deadly superbugs cannot identify and to which they will not be resistant.

Biotechnologist David Ackerley is overseeing the research and likens the battle against superbugs to an ever-escalating arms race that requires the constant development of new ammunition and weapons.

"If you've got rifles and your opponent suddenly develops tanks, you're going to need armour-penetrating bullets," he said.

The team's recently published study defines new ways in which microbes, which are used to make some commonly used types of antibiotics, can be re-engineered to produce modified forms of the original molecules.

By rearranging the enzymes that make a specific antibiotic, a different one can be created that resistant bacteria won't recognise. The new drugs will still fight infection and, if used in a more targeted way, bacteria won't become resistant so easily.

"Part of the problem is that people have historically been careless when using antibiotics, which has, one by one, allowed bacteria to build resistance, thrive and multiply. We're smarter now, but at a time when we're running out of options," Ackerley said.

There was a "serious and immediate" need for new antibiotics. "Either we have to develop the next generation or find clever and affordable ways of modifying the ones we currently have."

Last year Wellington teacher Brian Pool, who suffered a brain haemorrhage while living in Vietnam, died in Wellington after fighting a nightmare bug, thought at the time to be the first bacterial strain untouchable by any antibiotic.

The case gave scientists and doctors a frightening glimpse into a "post-antibiotic world" - a return to the pre-penicillin era when a deadly infection could be picked up doing something as mundane as gardening, Wellington Hospital clinical microbiologist Mark Jones said.

Although "exquisitely resistant" strains, such as the one that pre-empted Pool's death, were rare, superbugs that were unaffected by all but a handful of antibiotics were slowly increasing, he said.

As the crossroads of a post-antibiotic world loomed, the team's research was crucial, Jones said, and any new antibiotics that came out of it would be "greeted with open arms".

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Institute of Environmental Science and Research clinical microbiologist Deborah Williamson said that antibiotic resistance was "one of the biggest man-made health threats of the modern age", but New Zealand was lucky because resistance rates were relatively low compared with other parts of the world, such as Asia.

"But it's important we don't become complacent. All of us - doctors and patients alike - have a role to play in reducing and preventing antibiotic resistance."

New Zealand was not immune to the "very real threat" of entering a post-antibiotic era, with international travel and overuse of antibiotics the main threats here.

However, Williamson said the health ministry was taking a pro-active approach and was implementing a national response to the issue.

- The Dominion Post


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