Antibiotics may not be quite as endangered as experts have feared. While bacteria are fast evolving resistance to many treatments, one particular antibiotic could represent an impossible puzzle for these superbugs to solve.
Scientists at the Scripps Research Institute worked with vancomycin, an antibiotic that has already been in use for six decades without most bacterial strains developing much, if any, resistance to it. The original vancomycin breaks apart the structure of the bacterial cells, which has proved effective in disrupting and fighting off the spread of harmful bacteria in the human body. Even so, a handful of bugs have begun to be resistant to the antibiotic. Both the World Health Organization and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have ranked those particular bacteria as among the most dangerous in the world.
As the researchers explain in the latest issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, they made a pair of modifications at the molecular level so that the drug was now a thousand times more powerful than it had been before. Much less of the drug would be needed to use to have the same effect against bacteria. That reduced exposure to the drug means bacteria would be less able to develop resistance to it.
The researchers say the drug isn't just stronger than it was before, but smarter as well: The alterations now allow vancomycin to fight off bacteria in three different ways. Even if an invading bacteria managed to overcome one of the antibiotic's defenses, it would still fall prey to the other two. In a statement, lead researcher Dale Boger called the drug "magical" for its ability to kill off bacteria. That includes bacteria that were previously resistant to vancomycin. If that holds up with further tests, this antibiotic wouldn't just fight back against superbugs, but actually turn the clock back on bacteria resistance.
The drug hasn't moved outside the laboratory yet, and making this souped-up version of vancomycin involves 30 steps. That's a lot of work to create a drug, and the researchers say they hope to simplify the process to ease the task of mass-producing it down the road. For his part, Boger argued this new version of vancomycin is worth distributing even if it never gets easier or cheaper to make, as getting people working treatments to bacterial infections is just that important.
Superbugs: Victims and outbreaks
Superbugs: Victims and outbreaks
Kelly and Ryan Breaux stand holding a portrait of their deceased daughter Emma Breaux, at their home in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, on June 16, 2016. The husband and wife lost twins, Emma and Talon, to different superbugs that they contracted while in the neonatal unit at Lafayette General Hospital. U.S. Picture taken June 16, 2016. TO MATCH SPECIAL REPORT USA-UNCOUNTED/SURVEILLANCE REUTERS/Edmund Fountain
Kelly and Ryan Breaux sit holding a portrait of their deceased daughter Emma Breaux in their home in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, on June 16, 2016. The husband and wife lost twins, Emma and Talon, to different superbugs that they contracted while in the neonatal unit at Lafayette General Hospital. U.S. Picture taken June 16, 2016. TO MATCH SPECIAL REPORT USA-UNCOUNTED/SURVEILLANCE REUTERS/Edmund Fountain
Four-year-old Luke Reimer, of Batavia, Illinois, holds a photograph, June 18, 2009, of his twin sister Madeline who died after being born with MRSA (Methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus), a bacterium that is resistant to many antibiotics. (Photo by Chuck Berman/Chicago Tribune/MCT via Getty Images)
Stephanie Hall (L), sits on the couch with her sister, Crystal Silva (R), and their ten year old niece Destini and nephew Kane in El Paso, Texas, U.S. on July 2, 2016. The children's mother, Natalie Silva, contracted Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, more commonly known as MRSA, a skin infection that can turn fatal once it enters the bloodstream, when she went to the hospital to deliver Kane. After a 10 month battle with MRSA, Silva died, leaving Hall and the family to raise the two children. TO MATCH SPECIAL REPORT USA-UNCOUNTED/SURVEILLANCE REUTERS/Dan Dalstra
Monica Berckes, poses with the funeral program of her late mother Marianne Rumsey, who died at 61, several months after contracting MRSA during heart surgery, at her home in Secaucus, New Jersey, June 2, 2016. Picture taken June 2, 2016. TO MATCH SPECIAL REPORT USA-UNCOUNTED/SURVEILLANCE REUTERS/Mike Segar
Zachary Rubin (C), medical director of clinical epidemiology and infection prevention, and Robert Cherry (R), chief medical and quality officer for UCLA Health System, attend a news conference by UCLA Health System and county officials at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles, California February 19, 2015. The large Los Angeles teaching hospital has told scores of patients they were possibly exposed to a drug-resistant bacterial "superbug" during endoscopy procedures that infected seven patients and may have contributed to two deaths. REUTERS/Jonathan Alcorn (UNITED STATES - Tags: HEALTH DISASTER)
A sample bottle containing E. coli bacteria is seen at the Health Protection Agency in north London March 9, 2011. For decades scientists have managed to develop new medicines to stay at least one step ahead of the ever-mutating enemy, bacteria. Now, though, we may be running out of road. Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, commonly known as MRSA, alone is estimated to kill around 19,000 people every year in the United States -- far more than HIV and AIDS -- and a similar number in Europe, and other drug-resistant superbugs are spreading. Picture taken March 9, 2011. To match Special Report ANTIBIOTICS/ REUTERS/Suzanne Plunkett (BRITAIN - Tags: HEALTH SCI TECH)
An employee displays MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) bacteria strain inside a petri dish containing agar jelly for bacterial culture in a microbiological laboratory in Berlin March 1, 2008. MRSA is a drug-resistant "superbug", which can cause deadly infections. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch (GERMANY)
A view of the UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles, California March 19, 2015. UCLA, the hospital at the center of the "superbug" outbreak that killed two people and infected seven last month has received poor patient safety scores and had its payments cut by Medicare for high rates of hospital-acquired infections. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
This digitally-colorized scanning electron micrograph depicts four magenta-colored, spherical methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) bacteria in the process of being phagocytized by a blue-colored human white blood cells in this undated handout photo. TO MATCH SPECIAL REPORT USA-UNCOUNTED/SURVEILLANCE National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID)/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. EDITORIAL USE ONLYONLY
MIAMI - OCTOBER 17: Miami VA Medical Center hospital registered nurse, Rafael Sepulveda, pulls on rubber gloves while attending to patients in the Emergency room October 17, 2007 in Miami, Florida. The hospital has strict policies in place to ensure that the staff uses procedures in the fight against methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus bacteria, commonly referred to as MRSA. The staph bacterium is resistant to most common antibiotics and has been responsible for more than nearly 19,000 deaths each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)