Biologists at the University of California, San Diego have developed a new method for identifying and characterizing antibiotics, an advance that could lead to the discovery of new antibiotics to treat antibiotic resistant bacteria.
The researchers, who published their findings in this week’s early online edition of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, made their discovery by developing a way to perform the equivalent of an autopsy on bacterial cells.
“This will provide a powerful new tool for identifying compounds that kill bacteria and determining how they work,” said Joseph Pogliano, a professor of biology at UC San Diego who headed the research team. “Some bacteria have evolved resistance to every known class of antibiotic and, when these multi-drug resistant bacteria cause an infection, they are nearly impossible to treat. There is an urgent need for new antibiotics capable of treating infections caused by antibiotic resistant bacteria.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued an alarming report in March that antibiotic-resistant strains of Carbapenem-Resistant Enterobacteriaceae, or CRE, had been found to cause infections in patients in nearly 200 hospitals in the United States alone. Because no antibiotics on the market are effective at treating these infections, about one-half of patients die from CRE infections. These outbreaks are difficult to contain, and in a 2011 outbreak of Klebsiella pneumonia at the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) Clinical Center, the bacteria spread despite strict infection control procedures and was detected in drains and medical devices that had been subject to standard decontamination protocols.
“We are finally running out of the miracle drugs,” said Pogliano. The antibiotic penicillin was first discovered in the late 1920s, and received widespread clinical use in the 1940s. However, bacteria quickly evolved resistance to penicillin, so new and better versions were developed. Since that time, a continuous race has been fought to identify new antibiotics in order to stay one step ahead of the evolving resistance. In the 2011 outbreak of Klebsiella, the bacteria evolved resistance even to colistin, a drug of last resort because of its severe side effects.