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.