Sometimes the thing that you need was right in front of you the whole time–whether it’s your car keys, the television remote, or an effective antibiotic to fight drug-resistant bacteria.
…and maybe that one’s not as relatable as . But it’s definitely the case with a new study published Tuesday in the journal PLOS Biology that discovered an antibiotic drug discovered 80 years ago may be able to help fight stubborn and lethal infections. The paper’s authors now hope that the findings can pave the way for pre-clinical trials as a potential treatment for multi-drug resistant pathogens–which infect 3 million Americans and kill 35,000 each year, according to the CDC.
The research focuses on nourseothricin. This antibiotic is produced naturally by soil fungi and contains different forms of streptothricin. It was initially discovered and isolated in 1942. It showed great promise for treating infections such as Brucella Abortus and the potentially deadly Salmonella paraatyphi A . However, in limited trials in humans it caused reversible renal toxicity.
That all changed recently after a bit of luck led one scientist to look into the antibiotic.
“During my research efforts, I serendipitously noticed that nourseothricin was highly active against the most resistant pathogens in our collection including those without really other treatment options,” James Kirby, a pathologist at Harvard Medical School and lead author of the study, told The Daily Beast. “This led us to revisit and learn everything we could about this antibiotic.”
Using more modern and advanced drug analysis techniques, they discovered that earlier studies into the antibiotic were flawed. The researchers also discovered that versions of streptothricin with a lower toxic level were effective in fighting drug-resistant bacteria.
The researchers found that one version of the molecule dubbed streptothricin-F was capable of binding to the bacteria and causing it to essentially malfunction. “A major goal of addressing the looming antibiotic resistance threat is to diversify the types of antibiotics we have available in order to stay one step ahead of emerging resistance,” Kirby explained. “So, it was very exciting that we found that streptothricins target the bacterial cell in a new way.”
With drug-resistant bacteria on the rise, the discovery couldn’t have possibly have come at a better time. A 2019 global survey published in The Lancet discovered that more people die from antibiotic resistant diseases than HIV/AIDS or malaria worldwide. Spanish researchers have recently found that roughly 40 percent of supermarket meat in Spain have traces of antibiotic resistant E. coli present on them.
“Much of modern medicine is based on our ability to treat bacterial infection and we often take this for granted as antibiotics have worked so well for so long,” Kirby said. “Without the availability of antibiotics to prevent or treat infections most surgeries would be life or death propositions or could not be performed at all.”
He added that “resistance to currently available antibiotics is rapidly emerging, which threatens all of these medical advances. We are now increasingly in situations where there are no available treatment options for our patients.”
And, as we’ve seen from the pandemic, the global health system can easily be caught flat-footed when it comes to hardy pathogens. It would benefit us to be able to combat these diseases with as many tools as possible, even if that means revisiting old drugs.
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