First new antibiotic discovered in 50 years


A. baumannii, seen here under a scanning electron microscope, has developed resistance to almost all the antibiotics we have, making it a particularly deadly infection in those who catch it. — TNS

Under a microscope, this drug-resistant superbug looks as benign as a handful of pebbles.

Yet, carbapenem-resistant Acinetobacter baumannii (CRAB) is a nightmare for hospitals worldwide, as it kills roughly half of all patients who acquire it.

Identified as a top-priority pathogen by both the World Health Organization (WHO) and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), CRAB is the most common form of a group of bacteria that are resistant to nearly all available antibiotics.

Victims are typically hospitalised patients who are already sick with blood infections or pneumonia.

In the United States alone, the bug sickens thousands and kills hundreds every year.

But 2024 is starting with some encouraging news on the global health front: For the first time in half a century, researchers have identified a new antibiotic that appears to effectively kill A. baumannii.

The compound, zosurabalpin, attacks bacteria from a novel angle, disrupting the route that a key toxin takes on its journey from inside the bacterial cell to the outer membrane that shields the bug from the immune system’s defensive onslaughts.

No other antibiotic approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) takes this approach, and the element of surprise is an important advantage against even microscopic foes.

A. baumannii has had no opportunity to develop resistance against the drug, which means that, for at least a little while, zosurabalpin could ward off severe illness and death.

“As far as I can tell, the scientific approach is brilliant,” said University of California, Irvine, population health and disease prevention professor Dr Oladele A. Ogunseitan, who was not involved with the study.

The drug was developed jointly by scientists at the Swiss pharmaceutical company Roche and at Harvard University.

Their findings were published Jan 3 (2024) in the journal Nature.

Especially resistant

CRAB is a type of Gram-negative bacteria, a vexing category of superbugs.

Encased in both an inner and outer membrane that antibiotics struggle to cross, Gram-negative bacteria are resistant to most currently available therapies.

They are also astonishingly canny for unicellular organisms, with the ability to rapidly develop new defences against antibiotics and then pass them along to other bacteria through genetic material.

Antibiotic-resistant superbugs claim the lives of more than one million people globally each year.

The rise of drug resistance is due in part to human folly – we have long over-prescribed and misused antibiotics – but it is also because bacteria are continually finding ways to evade threats like the drugs aimed at killing them.

Over the last 50 years, these pathogens have evolved defences faster than we can produce new drugs.

In their search for a new weapon, the Roche and Harvard scientists turned their attention to a group of compounds called tethered macrocyclic peptides (MCPs).

After testing a library of 45,000 MCPs, the researchers came across one that seemed especially lethal against A. baumannii.

After some chemical tinkering, that compound became zosurabalpin.

A new method of attack

“This is a very promising advance,” said University of Illinois chemistry professor Dr Paul J. Hergenrother, who was not involved in the research, but wrote about the findings for Nature.

“Zosurabalpin kills bacteria in a way that is different from all other approved antibiotics.”

The drug kicks into gear only in the presence of lipopolysaccharide (LPS), a bacterial toxin.

LPS is made inside the bacterial cell and is carried by a dedicated transport system to the bug’s outer defences.

“The bacterial outer membrane is important for bacteria because it helps them to live in harsh conditions and to survive attacks by our immune system,” said Roche’s global chief of discovery for infectious diseases Kenneth Bradley.

Zosurabalpin essentially cuts off the LPS transport route.

Without a way to get to the outer membrane of the cell, where it can get to work fighting off drugs and immune attacks, the toxin builds up inside the bacteria and eventually kills the cell.

In mice studies, the drug effectively killed off CRAB infections in the blood, lungs and thighs, a selection that mirrors the ways the bug infects humans.

It’s currently in Phase I clinical trials in humans, where researchers are looking at the drug’s safety, tolerability and the amount of the chemical that remains in patients’ bodies over time, said Roche’s infectious disease chief Michael Lobritz.

“It has been more than 50 years since the last distinct class of antibiotic was launched that is capable of treating infections by Gram-negative bacteria,” he said in an email.

“Any new antibiotic class that has the ability to treat infections caused by multidrug-resistant (MDR) bacteria such as CRAB would be a significant breakthrough.”

New antibiotics needed

Encouraging as the early results are, scientists stressed that it would be foolish to get cocky in the fight against a bug that, time and time again, has found ways to evade our most advanced pharmaceutical weaponry.

“Resistance has emerged to every antibiotic ever created, and it is likely that resistance will emerge to zosurabalpin in the future too, if it successfully becomes a clinical antibiotic,” Bradley said.

In their findings, the authors noted a few gene mutations in the lab that significantly decreased the drug’s success against A. baumannii.

These were rare, but worrying; one freak mutation reduced the drug’s effectiveness 256-fold.

“Although the rates of appearance of these resistant organisms is low, and comparable to standard-of-care antibiotics, the observation affirms the principle that we can never rest on our laurels with the chemical and biochemical warfare that we are waging on bacterial pathogens,” Prof Ogunseitan said.

Zosurabalpin is essentially unknown to bacteria.

If it proves safe and effective in humans, there’s likely a limited window in which it could effectively spare lives and suffering.

But no matter how sophisticated our tools, scientists said, these potentially deadly cells will always have a major advantage against us.

“Bacteria have a big numbers advantage – billions can be in a flask,” said Prof Hergenrother.

“Bacteria will eventually evolve resistance to virtually every antibiotic, which is why we need a steady supply of new antibiotic candidates.” – By Corinne Purtill/Los Angeles Times/Tribune News Service

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