Forgotten Antibiotic Surfaces, Offers Hope Against Superbugs
Antibiotic-resistant superbugs have been increasing in recent years all over the world, but significantly in India, where a perfect storm of factors — from unregulated sales of antibiotics, overprescription of antibiotics, and patient expectations — have created an environment wherein the wonder drugs of the 20th century work less and less.
In response, scientists have been chasing an alternative to antibiotics for nearly as long, from genetically altering infectious bacteria, to counter-infecting the bacteria with destructive (but safe to humans) viruses. But the latest great new hope for researchers isn’t, in fact, new at all. Rather, it’s an antibiotic called octapeptin, discovered 40 years ago, but never developed into medication.
“Octapeptins were discovered in the late 1970s but were not selected for development at the time, as there was an abundance of new antibiotics with thousands of people working in antibiotic research and development,” explains Matt Cooper, director of the Centre for Superbug Solutions at the University of Queensland’s Institute for Molecular Bioscience. “Given the very few researchers left in this field now, and the sparse pipeline for new antibiotics, we’ve used modern drug discovery procedures to re-evaluate its effectiveness against superbugs.”
Cooper said there were no new classes of antibiotics available for Gram-negative bacteria, with increasing incidence of extensive drug resistance around the world.
“Gram-negative bacteria are harder to kill as disease organisms, because they have an extra membrane to penetrate that is often hidden by a capsule or slime layer which acts to camouflage them from drugs and our immune system,” he said. “Octapeptin showed superior antimicrobial activity to colistin against extensively resistant Gram-negative bacteria in early pre-clinical testing.”
Colistin is the current antibiotic-of-last-resort for doctors to prescribe patients when all other antibiotics have failed. In 2014, thirteen cases in Chennai became the world’s first evidence of resistance to colistin. More cases have been recorded elsewhere in the world since.
But as promising as octapeptin may be, it’s likely only a time-buying measure — one worth exploring, but not worth counting on long term: Colistin itself was discovered in 1949, but stayed primarily in the lab until 2005, when it was tapped to be developed into medication that could treat rising multi-drug-resistant strains of bacteria.