Molecular tweezers pick apart the defenses of drug-resistant bacteria
The rise of drug-resistant bacteria, which are superbugs that are evolving the ability to evade the defenses offered by our best medicines, is a growing threat to human health. Combating these dangers is going to take some inventive solutions, and researchers in Israel have demonstrated an example of this type of thinking with a set of "molecular tweezers" that can pick apart the protective film of bacteria, freeing the way for the human immune system to go to work.
Developed by scientists from Ben-Gurion University (BGU) together with researchers in Germany and the US, the molecular tweezers were conceived as a way of dismantling sticky bacterial biofilms. These are protective barriers built by bacteria that protect the bugs from antibiotics and other dangers, and by focusing on very fine fibers that form part of this shield, the researchers believes they have come up with a way to take it to pieces.
"The tweezers are just like your home tweezers but a million times smaller, and instead of plucking hairs they attack fibers of the bacteria's biofilm," explains BGU Department of Chemistry Professor Raz Jelinek. "By doing that they break the biofilm, making it more vulnerable to human immune defenses and external substances that are used against bacteria like antibiotics."
This capability was demonstrated in lab tests on Staphylococcus aureus (Staph) bacteria, where the molecular tweezers were bound to the bacteria and significantly inhibited the structure and assembly of the amyloid peptides secreted by the bug to form its protective biofilm. By dismantling the protective layer rather than directly attacking the bacteria, the tweezers allow the natural immune defenses to go to work, offering a potential way to treat drug-resistant bacteria without further contributing to its antibiotic resistance.
"The success of the study indicates an innovative direction of antibiotic treatments against pathogenic bacteria," says Jelinek. "We found that binding the tweezers to the biofilm disrupts its protective capabilities. Consequently, the bacterial pathogens become less virulent to the human body, and more vulnerable to elimination by the immune system. This breakthrough may open up new ways to fight antibiotic-resistant bacteria."
There is still much work to do to translate these early, albeit promising, findings into clinical treatments, but already the scientists have some ideas around how that could work. One possibility, according to Jelinek, would be to have a pill packed with millions of these "swallowable tweezers," which could identify troublesome biofilms in the body and take them down.
The research was published in the journal Cell Chemical Biology.