A research team from McMaster University, the University of British Columbia and Cardiff University has discovered a fungus in the soil of the Canadian province of Nova Scotia that may offer hope in an increasingly fraught battle against drug-resistant bacteria.

Drug resistant bacteria is an increasing problem across much of the world. “Antibiotic resistance ... is now a major threat to public health,” according to the World Health Organisation (WHO)

“The world is headed for a post-antibiotic era, in which common infections and minor injuries which have been treatable for decades can once again kill,” Dr Keiji Fukuda, WHO’s Assistant Director-General for Health Security.

In early July British Prime Minister David Cameron suggested that the world may be "cast back into the dark ages of medicine" thanks to a market failure that has not seen new antibiotics produced in a generation.

Drug resistant strains of disease affect more than just the developing world, reportedly killing more than 25,000 people a year in Europe. Some of the factors driving drug resistance are overuse, misuse and bacterial evolution in response to antibiotics.

Whilst there are more basic ways to limit resistance to antibiotics – especially in developing nations – such as better hygiene measures and improved access to clean water, or patients finishing courses of antibiotics and not swapping them or giving them to others, it is far more important to tackle the underlying problems of resistant bacteria. Recent approaches to tackling the problem have included “smart bombs”, cold plasma technology and attacking the cell membrane rather than the cell itself.

Now Canadian and Welsh researchers may have found an alternative in a naturally occurring fungus. The fungus-derived molecule, AMA, may be able to disarm one of the most dangerous of the purported drug-resistant genes for superbugs – New Delhi Metallo-beta-Lactamase-1 (NDM-1).

NDM-1 is an enzyme that can make bacteria resistant to many types of antibiotics. First discovered in 2008 in India, the NDM-1 “superbug” has also been found in water in South Asia and is carried by many drug resistant organisms that already cause many diseases.

The fungal molecule is elegant in its simplicity and efficacy: it harmlessly removes the zinc NDM-1 needs for survival without causing ill effects in humans. The research showed that mice dosed with AMA and a carbapenem antibiotic survived exposure to NDM-1.

“Simply put, the molecule knocks out NDM-1 so the antibiotics can do their job,” said Gerry Wright, director of the Michael G. DeGroote Institute for Infectious Disease Research at McMaster University.

Wright provides an overview of the findings in the McMaster video below.