Nobel laureate finds chemical to combat super bacteria

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Photo by Aube Rey Lescure.

As hospital workers know, superbacteria can withstand a wide range of antibiotics, causing infections that are extremely difficult to cure. But a Yale professor’s discovery may put an end to that.

Nobel Prize-winning Sterling Professor of Biology Sidney Altman and his research team have developed a chemical that can kill many different types of bacteria, including superbacteria, which are resistant to conventional drugs. The study, published Sept. 26 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, shows that the substance may offer effective treatments for a variety of bacterial infections in humans, researchers said.

“More people are suffering from drug-resistant bacterial infections,” immunology professor Alfred Bothwell said. “It’s a growing problem.”

The number of bacteria resistant to antibiotics has increased in the last decade, according to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In the study, Altman’s team was attempting to improve upon a new method of attacking important genetic material in bacteria, the report said. The method employs two-part compounds, one part called a peptide — which Altman’s team altered — that brings the compound into the bacterial cell, and another that binds to RNA that specifically corresponds to genes within the bacterium that are essential for survival. This in turn causes an enzyme to attack the RNA, thereby killing the bacterium.

The Yale team’s change to the compound made it far more effective than the original, which used a different peptide component. Altman said the breakthrough came when Bothwell suggested they use a peptide component found in human T-cells, a type of cell involved in the human immune response. The new compound is not only safer for humans, but is also at least 10 to 100 times more effective in killing bacteria than existing compounds, the scientists determined.

Although the experiment only tested a few types of bacteria, some of which were relatives of disease-causing varieties, Altman said that there is a good chance it will work on many different bacteria.

Jon Moulton of Gene Tools, LLC, a company that conducts research and production on similar compounds, said the chemical has incredible potential and offers significant advantages over current antibiotics. Having researched the possibility of a similar substance’s use as a therapy for the genetic disease Duchenne muscular dystrophy, Moulton added that the new chemical’s potential applications may even expand to genetic disorders and viral infections.

Altman said that although the discovery is promising, he cannot guarantee that it will become commercially viable, and estimated that it may take five to 10 years for the compound to begin to appear in pharmaceutical products.

“Once a company decides to invest, then it might become popular as a treatment option,” he said.

Moulton noted that in order for the chemical to be a feasible treatment, it needs to be made less toxic to humans. A system of large-scale manufacturing also needs to be set up, he said, both of which may take time.

Altman was awarded the 1989 Nobel Prize in Chemistry alongside Thomas Cech for discovering the catalytic properties of RNA.

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