New Synthetic Antibiotics May Combat MRSA and Other Superbugs

Antibiotic resistance is highly concerning to researchers, but a team of researchers have identified new synthetic antibiotics with the potential to kill aggressive bacteria.

Antibiotics are inarguably one of the greatest inventions in modern medicine, responsible for easing symptoms and saving countless lives. But as wonderful and necessary as antibiotics are for fighting bacteria, bacteria have a sneaky way of becoming resistant to these medications.

Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, is a particularly stubborn type of bacteria that’s been shown to be resistant to several antibiotics; as such, it is considered a threat to patient health in hospitals worldwide. But a team of scientists may have found a solution to this growing problem with the discovery of a new kind of synthetic antibiotic, one that has demonstrated the ability to kill MRSA—at least in animal trials.

The research team, led by Eleftherios Mylonakis, MD, chief of infectious disease at Rhode Island Hospital and the Miriam Hospital in Providence as well as a professor at Brown University’s Alpert Medical School, screened 82,000 different synthetic molecules. From this group, they ended up with 185 compounds that were able to significantly impair the ability of MRSA to kill nematodes, or roundworms. Of the 185, 2 compounds were tested further and found to be effective against MRSA in mice. The team employed advanced computer-modeling techniques that showed the exact process by which the compounds penetrated the bacteria membranes to kill not only growing MRSA cells but also so-called persister cells, which are dormant and highly resistant to antibiotics.

The scientists on the study team said the development of new antibiotics that fight MRSA and other superbugs is crucial because antibiotic resistance develops at a much faster pace than new antibiotics do. It takes a decade or more to move an antibiotic from discovery to testing to implementation into clinical practice, according to Dr. Mylonakis, but it takes bacteria only 2 years to develop resistance. And not only patients but everyone around them is at risk of contracting an infection that can’t be controlled.

“Infectious diseases [are] unique [because] they are contagious,” he told Contagion®. “What happens in 1 part of the world can affect another part of the world overnight.” Dr. Mylonakis also said that a failure to prevent and treat infections can affect medicine across spectrums and at every level, from cancer treatment to routine surgery such as knee replacement.

Although pharmaceutical companies likely have the money and the resources to focus on developing new antibiotics, few choose this route. Most prefer to work on drugs that provide a greater return on their investment, such as medications that must be taken daily for long periods of time to manage chronic conditions—not drugs that are typically taken for short periods and which actually cure the conditions they treat, as antibiotics do. Dr. Mylonakis said some pharmaceutical firms are reluctant to take on products that have a propensity for resistance or which may have harmful side effects. “Toxicity is a risk, resistance is a risk, and then you have a market that punishes you for being [an effective drug].”

The dearth of pharmaceutical companies working on antibiotics means university researchers often pick up the slack. “Academia has to fill the gap,” said Dr. Mylonakis, adding that schools are at a disadvantage because they don’t have all of the resources of pharmaceutical firms, including enormous libraries of chemical compounds, hundreds of scientists to do the work, and plenty of animals for testing. “We’re trying to find ways around it.”

Now that his team has discovered these 2 synthetic antibiotics that appear to be effective against MRSA, Dr. Mylonakis is eager to move things to the next level by connecting with an experienced pharmaceutical company that has resources. “We need to partner with somebody that knows [how] to take it from here,” he said.

His team will continue to conduct studies and further their knowledge, but he remains concerned that without help from the drug industry, progress on antibiotics will stall and resistance will continue to outpace the development of effective new drugs. “If the whole field does not change, this is not going to make a dent,” he insisted.

Laurie Saloman, MS, is a health writer with more than 20 years of experience working for both consumer- and physician-focused publications. She is a graduate of Brandeis University and the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. She lives in New Jersey with her family.