A new type of antibiotic developed from soil culture could solve one of the most pressing medical problems of the modern age: antibiotic resistance.
A paper in the journal Nature details how the new antibiotic, dubbed teixobactin, proved completely effective at healing mice infected with the most common drug-resistant forms of super-bug MRSA and tuberculosis.
What's more, it could take a long while for bacteria to become resistant – which is particularly useful as pathogens around the world build up resistance to treatments.
"The need for new antibiotics is acute due to the global problem of pathogen drug resistance. Teixobactin’s dual mode of action and binding to non-peptidic regions suggest that resistance will be very difficult to develop," said Dr Kim Lewis, co-founder of biotech firm NovoBiotic, which helped develop the drug.
For years now, doctors have been warning about the problems coming down the line from antibiotic resistance. The overprescription of the drugs, and their wholesale use in the livestock farming business, has led to the evolution of illnesses that laugh in the face of even the most complex antibiotic compounds.
Last month a UK government study [PDF] on the subject estimated that antibiotic-resistant infections kill 700,000 people each year worldwide, and that without new forms of the medicine, that could rise to 10 million a year by 2050.
Creating new types of antibiotics is a tough business and not very profitable at the moment; they are difficult to develop and test in a lab. So the team at NovoBiotic and Northeastern University in Boston developed a new way of growing them.
The microbes that create teixobactin, along with another 24 potential new antibiotics, were found in a soil sample taken from a field in Maine. To grow the samples, the researchers put one bacterium in a board called an iCube and enclosed it in a semipermeable membrane.
The iCube is then put into a box of the wonder soil, taken from the field, and its payload allowed to grow. In this way, the bacteria reproduces efficiently outside of a petri dish and harvested for drug production.
“The discovery of teixobactin is further evidence that our unique culturing technologies provide ready access to new chemistry from nature that can be screened for novel drug leads” said Dr Dallas Hughes, President of NovoBiotic.
The drug itself isn't going to be available for some years yet, however. While it has been proven non-toxic to other mammals, testing on human subjects now has to be carried out, but teixobactin looks like our best bet yet against mankind's oldest enemy. ®
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