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This 80-Year-Old Forgotten Antibiotic May Be Effective Against Superbugs

Myriam Zilles / Unsplash
Myriam Zilles / Unsplash

Sometimes the thing that you need was right in front of you the whole time—whether it’s your car keys, the television remote, or an effective antibiotic to fight drug-resistant bacteria.

OK, maybe that last one isn’t as relatable. But it’s definitely the case with a new study published Tuesday in the journal PLOS Biology that discovered an antibiotic drug discovered 80 years ago may be able to help fight stubborn and lethal infections. The paper’s authors now hope that the findings can pave the way for pre-clinical trials as a potential treatment for multi-drug resistant pathogens—which infect 3 million Americans and kill 35,000 each year, according to the CDC.

The study specifically takes a look at nourseothricin, an antibiotic that’s naturally produced by a soil fungus and contains various forms of the complex molecule streptothricin. It was initially discovered and isolated in 1942. While it showed promise in curing infections like Brucella abortus in guinea pigs and potentially lethal Salmonella paratyphi B in mice, it was shown to cause reversible kidney toxicity in limited human trials—and so it was largely abandoned as a drug.

That all changed recently after a bit of luck led one scientist to look into the antibiotic.

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“During my research efforts, I serendipitously noticed that nourseothricin was highly active against the most resistant pathogens in our collection including those without really other treatment options,” James Kirby, a pathologist at Harvard Medical School and lead author of the study, told The Daily Beast. “This led us to revisit and learn everything we could about this antibiotic.”

Using more modern and advanced drug analysis techniques, they discovered that earlier studies into the antibiotic were flawed. They also found that significantly less toxic versions of streptothricin were still effective against drug-resistant bacteria.

The researchers found that one version of the molecule dubbed streptothricin-F was capable of binding to the bacteria and causing it to essentially malfunction. “A major goal of addressing the looming antibiotic resistance threat is to diversify the types of antibiotics we have available in order to stay one step ahead of emerging resistance,” Kirby explained. “So, it was very exciting that we found that streptothricins target the bacterial cell in a new way.”

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With drug-resistant bacteria on the rise, the discovery couldn’t have possibly have come at a better time. A 2019 global survey published in The Lancet discovered that more people die from antibiotic resistant diseases than HIV/AIDS or malaria worldwide. Spanish researchers have recently found that roughly 40 percent of supermarket meat in Spain have traces of antibiotic resistant E. coli present on them.

“Much of modern medicine is based on our ability to treat bacterial infection and we often take this for granted as antibiotics have worked so well for so long,” Kirby said. “Without the availability of antibiotics to prevent or treat infections most surgeries would be life or death propositions or could not be performed at all.”

He added that “resistance to currently available antibiotics is rapidly emerging, which threatens all of these medical advances. We are now increasingly in situations where there are no available treatment options for our patients.”

And, as we’ve seen from the pandemic, the global health system can easily be caught flat-footed when it comes to hardy pathogens. So it would behoove us all to have as many options to fight these diseases as we possibly can—even if it means revisiting drugs that are as old as our grandparents.

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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