In a world where apocalyptic scenarios involving climate change or nuclear war are frequently bandied about in the media, the threat of antibiotic-resistant superbugs seems to constantly bubble in the background. Last year a UK government review concluded that superbugs could kill up to ten million people per year by 2050, while early in 2017 the World Health Organization released a list of antibiotic resistant priority pathogens – the first in the organization's 69-year history. A new weapon in our arsenal has just been developed by a team of researchers, supercharging a commonly used antibiotic to make it more more potent than ever before.

Scientists are fighting this war on superbugs from several fronts, developing antimicrobial materials, bacteria-killing gels, and even using light to destroy pathogens. A team at The Scripps Research Institute has focused on structurally modifying a previously known antibiotic in the hopes of making it more powerful.

The research looked at vancomycin, an antibiotic that has been commonly used for 60 years, but only recently has bacteria begun to develop a resistance to it. The team had previously developed two modifications to make vancomycin more potent, and this new development adds a third modification, now making the antibiotic incredibly difficult for bacteria to develop resistance to.

"This increases the durability of this antibiotic," explains lead researcher Dale Boger. "Organisms just can't simultaneously work to find a way around three independent mechanisms of action. Even if they found a solution to one of those, the organisms would still be killed by the other two."

The new supercharged vancomycin was successfully tested on a vancomycin-resistant form of Enterococci bacteria. The researchers estimate this new modified form of the antibiotic has a 1,000-fold increase in activity, meaning a lot less of the drug is needed to fight infections.

Research like this offers us valuable ammunition in the war on superbugs. The scientists still need to develop an efficient way to synthesize this new, modified vancomycin, but it is good to know we have a new weapon on the horizon.

The findings were published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Source: The Scripps Research Institute via EurekAlert