Breathing New Life into Old Antibiotics

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Scientists may have hit upon a way to make frontline antibiotics once again effective against the deadly bacteria that cause pneumonia.

The international team originally developed this as a potential treatment for disorders such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Huntington’s diseases to break bacterial resistance to commonly used frontline antibiotics.

Led by University of Melbourne Professor Christopher McDevitt, this discovery may see the comeback of readily available and cheap antibiotics, such as penicillin and ampicillin, as effective weapons in the fight against the rapidly rising threat of antibiotic resistance.

In a paper published in Cell Reports, Prof McDevitt and colleagues described how they discovered a way to break bacterial drug resistance and then developed a therapeutic approach to rescue the use of the antibiotic ampicillin to treat drug-resistant bacterial pneumonia caused by Streptococcus pneumoniae in a mouse model of infection.

The World Health Organization (WHO) last year named antibiotic resistance as one of the greatest threats to global health, food security, and development. Rising numbers of bacterial infections such as pneumonia, tuberculosis, gonorrhoea, and salmonellosis are becoming harder to treat as the antibiotics lose effectiveness against them.

Prof McDevitt’s prior work on bacterial antibiotic resistance using zinc ionophores led to collaborations with University of Queensland’s Professor Mark Walker and Griffith University’s Professor Mark von Itzstein from the Institute for Glycomics.

“We knew that some ionophores, such as PBT2, had been through clinical trials and shown to be safe for use in humans,” Prof von Itzstein said.

Prof Walker said that “as a group, we realised that if we could repurpose these safe molecules to break bacterial resistance and restore antibiotic efficacy, this would be a pathway to a therapeutic treatment. What we had to do was show whether PBT2 broke bacterial resistance to antibiotic treatment without leading to even greater drug resistance.”

“We focused on bacterial pneumonia and the most commonly used antibiotics. We thought that if we could rescue frontline antibiotics and restore their use for treating common infections, this would solve a global problem,” Prof McDevitt added.

An important component was the research from Prof McDevitt’s group that led to making the treatment effective.

“We knew from earlier research that the immune system uses zinc as an innate antimicrobial to fight off infection. So, we developed our therapeutic approach with PBT2 to use the body’s antimicrobial zinc to break antibiotic resistance in the invading bacteria,” he said.

“This rendered the drug-resistant bacteria susceptible to the antibiotic ampicillin, restoring the effectiveness of the antibiotic treatment in the infected animals.”

Collecting the data required for a clinical trial of PBT2 in combination with antibiotics is the next step, said Prof McDevitt.

“We also want to find other antibiotic-PBT2 combinations that have therapeutic potential for treatment of other bacterial infections,” he said.

“Our work shows that this simple combination therapy is safe, but the combinations require testing in clinical trials. What we need now is to move forward with further testing and pharmacology.”

Source: University of Melbourne

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