PhotoEarlier this year, the World Health Organization (WHO) released a list of the most dangerous superbugs – which are diseases and infections that have developed a resistance to antibiotics used to treat them. The organization split the pathogens into critical, high, and medium priorities with the hope that researchers would focus on efforts to create better vaccines for them.

Now, a group of U.S. scientists from the Scripps Institute have re-engineered an older vaccine to fight one of the deadliest superbugs, vancomycin-resistant enterococci (VRE). This bacterium is often found in hospitals and can fatally infect patients’ bloodstreams.

As the name suggests, VRE is resistant to vancomycin, a drug that has been used for over 60 years. However, researchers say the newest version of the antibiotic they’re testing is over 1,000 times more potent and may be available within the next five years.

“Resistance to such an antibiotic would be very difficult to emerge,” said lead researcher Dr. Dale Boger.

Multiple forms of attack

The Scripps team set out to improve vancomycin to restore its ability to kill VRE. To do that, Boger explains that the researchers had to change the drug at the molecular level to give it more ways to attack harmful bacteria.

“We made one change to the molecule vancomycin that overcomes what is the present resistance to vancomycin. And then we added to the molecule, two small changes that built into the molecule, two additional ways in which it can kill bacteria,” he said. “So the antibiotic has three different, we call them ‘mechanisms,’ by which it kills bacteria…So it’s a molecule designed specifically to address the emergence of resistance.”

Boger goes on to explain that it is very difficult for bacteria to survive from such an attack because even if it comes up with a way to resist one mechanism, it will still die from the other two. Although it has not yet been tested on human or animal models, the researchers believe that it could be the solution to fighting off VRE. Following this model for future antibiotics may also help fight off other types superbugs as well.

“Doctors could use this modified form of vancomycin without fear of resistance emerging,” said Boger. “This development could be hugely important,” added Dr. Nigel Brown of the Microbiology Society.

The full study has been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.


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