UEA scientists hail breakthrough in fight against antibiotic-resistant bugs

PUBLISHED: 18:00 18 June 2014

Scientists at the University of East Anglia have made a breakthrough in the race to solve antibiotic resistance.

Scientists at the University of East Anglia have made a breakthrough in the race to solve antibiotic resistance.

Copyright Andrew Brookes

Norwich-based scientists hailed a breakthrough in the fight against drug-resistant bugs, which could pave the way for a new wave of super antibiotics.

Prof Changjiang Dong Prof Changjiang Dong

Experts from the University of East Anglia said new drugs could be developed to tackle antibiotic-resistant infections such as e.coli and salmonella “in a couple of years” following research by medics at the Norwich School of Medicine.

Scientists said they had found an Achilles’ heel in the defensive barrier that surrounds drug-resistant bacterial cells.

The findings, following three years of work by a team of five at the UEA, could pave the way for new drugs that kill superbugs by bringing down their defensive walls, rather than attacking the bacteria itself.

The breakthrough, published in science journal Nature, comes after the World Health Organisation warned that antibiotic-resistance in bacteria is spreading globally, causing severe consequences.

Prof Changjiang Dong, who led the research, said thousands of people died every year because more and more infections were becoming resistant to commonly used drugs.

Researchers investigated a class of bacteria called ‘Gram-negative bacteria’ which is particularly resistant to antibiotics. A membrane surrounding the bacteria acts as a defensive barrier against attacks from the human immune system and antibiotic drugs.

However, the new findings revealed how the defensive barrier is built and how bacterial cells transport the barrier building blocks, called lipopolysaccharides, to the outer surface.

Prof Dong, who has been based at the UEA for the last two years, said that removing the barrier caused the bacteria to become more vulnerable and die.

“We have identified the path and gate used by the bacteria to transport the barrier building blocks to the outer surface. Importantly, we have demonstrated that the bacteria would die if the gate is locked. This is really important because drug-resistant bacteria is a global health problem. Many current antibiotics are becoming useless, causing hundreds of thousands of deaths each year.”

“The number of super-bugs are increasing at an unexpected rate. This research provides the platform for urgently-needed new generation drugs,” he said.

The ground breaking research was funded by the Wellcome Trust and included collaborators from Diamond Light Source (UK), the University of Oxford, and Sun Yat-sen University in China.

Lead author PhD student Haohao Dong added: “The really exciting thing about this research is that new drugs will specifically target the protective barrier around the bacteria, rather than the bacteria itself. Because new drugs will not need to enter the bacteria itself, we hope that the bacteria will not be able to develop drug resistance in future.”

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