Mac scientists make breakthrough in superbug research

Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus 10048 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

McMaster University researchers are making major inroads in the battle against so-called superbugs and laying the groundwork for highly effective antibiotics of the future, a scientific journal says.

An article in the current issue of Nature Biotechnology outlines a new approach to isolating naturally-occurring antibiotics in soil bacteria that could produce new drugs that are effective on antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

It’s well known bacteria in soils and soil fungi produce antibiotics. But the problem has been going through millions of strains to find ones that are effective against new superbugs and worth pursuing commercially. Most antibiotics were discovered in the 1940s and ’50s when bacteria and fungi that grow in nature were screened. Penicillin was discovered this way.

“It’s like trying to find a needle in a haystack,” says Gerry Wright, professor and scientific director of the Michael G. DeGroote Institute for Infectious Disease Research.

The new process essentially involves applying commercially available antibiotics to soil samples in Petri dishes. That kills off most of the bacteria, and the researchers focus their attention on the naturally-occurring antibiotics associated with the bacteria that remains. This enables researchers to screen for new drugs 10,000 times more effectively.

“It’s like back to the future. Soil bacteria and soil fungi are where we found them to begin with and we drifted away from that source,” said Wright.

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