Studies shed light on bacterial treatments

By | Health & Wellness
This generalised diagram of a bacterium shows the hair-like pili on the cell surface, which they use to attach to other cells. A new drug targets this structures, helping the body get rid of the bacteria, and may offer alternatives to antibiotics currently used. Credit image@ Mariana Ruiz Villarreal, LadyofHats, wikicommons.

Antibiotic resistance is becoming a major asset for many bacterial strains known to man, leaving those in medical and biological sciences scratching their heads as how to eliminate them if they spread in a patient.

Ever since Alexander Flemming fortuitously discovered penicillin from a fungus, humans have entered what is known as an “evolutionary arms race” with the microscopic world. Due to natural variation and the high (asexual) reproductive and mutation rate in bacteria, some individuals in a population can develop resistance to drugs used in modern medicine.

As a result, humans and bacteria are continually playing catch up with one another as each species devises new, innovative ways to get the upper hand: scientists develop new drugs to counter the rising antibiotic resistance, and the bacteria evolve to counteract them. Ad infinitum.

What’s more, the antibiotics used to treat bacterial conditions tend to have a detrimental effect on our so called “friendly,” or commensal, bacteria, which have a role in several life functions including digestion and, ironically enough, protection from pathogen spread.

However, scientists have created a new way of treating bacterial conditions whilst leaving our friendly population unharmed.

The team, from the VIB/Vrije Universiteit Brussels, Belgium, discovered a chemical compound capable of treating bacterial infections, with the added benefits of counteracting the resistance seen in some strains as well as leaving commensal populations unaffected.

Lead by Han Remaut, PhD, researcher in structural biology and microbiology, the scientists looked at E.coli, a bacterium that can cause urinary tract conditions. In order to remain in the urinary tract, the pathogen produces structures known as pili, long, hair-like appendages found on the cell surface, that sticks to other cells and anchors them there.

The team believed that if they could deactivate the E.coli by inhibiting the mechanism responsible for the formation of these hair-like structures, they could then use this to prevent other types of bacterial conditions, without needing the influence of antibiotics.

This was particularly promising seeing as the mechanism is similar in most other bacterial species, meaning the treatment could have a wide-ranging application.

The next step was to screen databases for chemicals that could inhibit pilus formation, and came up with this molecule: N-(4-chloro-phenyl)-2-{5-[4-(pyrrolidine-1-sulfonyl)-phenyl]-[1,3,4]oxadiazol-2-yl sulfanyl}-acetamide, mercifully abbreviated to AL1. This compound was subsequently tested on E.coli, and results showed a decreased adherence to cells.

Alvin Lo, who worked on analyzing a potential inhibitor compound, spoke for the VIB website, underlining the importance of their findings: “E.coli is not the only pathogenic bacterium that uses this mechanism for attachment.” They went on to explain that if further research reveals that the molecule efficiently combats urinary tract conditions, then the same strategy could be used to deactivate other conditions, such as an upset stomach from food or traveler’s diarrhea.

Thus, seeing as the bacteria are prevented from sticking to the host cells, they are more susceptible from being eliminated from the body. And seeing as our friendly microbiome are unaffected by the AL1 compound it is an ideal candidate for future drugs for the treatment of bacterial-related conditions.

How does this new treatment affect the future of bacteria-related conditions?

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