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A nanotech approach to increasing the power of antibiotics

As we age, our immune systems degrade, so the increasing ineffectiveness of many antibiotics leaves seniors especially vulnerable. According to UCLA bioengineering professor Gerard Wong, “It takes upwards of $100 million to develop one antibiotic drug, and bacteria develop resistance to it within two years. It’s a race that we can’t win.”

Fortunately, he and his colleagues have come up with a potential solution, which might be called “drug renovation” instead of drug discovery.

While much antibiotic resistance occurs when bacteria mutate, the organisms also have a natural defense: persister cells, which essentially play possum by turning down the cellular processes that antibiotics would normally interrupt. Once the antibiotic attack is over, the persister cells ramp back up, causing recurrent and chronic bacterial infections.

Screen Shot 2014-09-29 at 11.55.48 PMThe UCLA team added amino acids to a molecule of an existing antibiotic, called tobramycin, transforming it into a new, far more effective compound called “Pentobra,” which can be up to a million times more effective at killing bacteria.

“What we’ve done is make a molecule that kills with more than one mechanism,” Wong explains in UCLA’s press release. “Pentobra can punch enough holes in the cell membrane to kill the cell, but that may not be the most efficient way to kill a bug. This antibiotic also messes up their ability to grow by preventing them from making more bacterial proteins.”

Most importantly, the team believes this method can be used to re-engineer other antibiotics as well, thus, saving millions of drug development dollars and potentially, lives.

A Pause for Perspective

It’s interesting to consider what people think will affect them personally in light of the winner of the 2014 Longitude Prize. Conceived to be a 21st century version of the competition to design a device that helped ships navigate safely, today’s version of the prize put six topics up to public vote in Britain for £10 million in funding, approximately 17 million in US dollars.

The nominees, selected by a professional committee, were: prevent resistance to Antibiotics; help people with Dementia live independently for longer; lower the environmental impact of Flight; eliminate Food scarcity; restore movement in those with Paralysis; ensure access to safe and clean drinking Water.

The winner, announced yesterday, was Antibiotics.

We have to examine our own bias, since we were certain Dementia would be the winner, given our awareness that much work is needed on both technological and biological fronts to prevent Dementia and to help patients and their caregivers to cope with it.

Yet we are re-assured by an email from Jason N. Doctor, Associate Professor, Pharmaceutical Economics & Policy of the University of Southern California, that British voters chose wisely. He writes, “Although dementia is a tremendous problem, from a health policy perspective the British public has made the right decision to tackle the problem of antibiotics ahead of dementia. If we reach the point where we cannot treat infectious disease, many people will not live long enough to develop dementia. All sorts of medical advances become less useful. Surgeries, childbirth, cancer treatments and organ transplants that suppress the immune system, pneumonia, implantable devices in the hip and knee and kidney dialysis all will have a much higher rate of death due to bacterial infection. For these reasons, it makes sense to tackle antibiotic resistance first.”


Mycobacterium tuberculosis (TB). Courtesy: Janice Haney Carr/CDC

Yeah, the voters got it right.