Culture wars: New class of antibacterials found in ocean microbeCompound discovered at sea shows potency against anthrax, MRSA
By Doug Page
Researchers at the UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography have found a chemical compound in an ocean microbe that preliminary research suggests could one day be used to treat victims of anthrax attack, the infectious disease often feared could be used as a biological weapon.
The chemical may even be effective against other ailments, such as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). The MRSA infection is caused by a strain of staph bacteria that has become resistant to the antibiotics commonly used to treat ordinary staph infections.
The new ocean compound, which the researchers named anthracimycin, was found in 2012 in a microorganism that lives in sediments not far off the Southern California coast at the bottom of the Santa Barbara Channel. The research team used an analytical technique called spectroscopy to decipher the unusual structure of a molecule from a microscopic species known as Streptomyces.
“Anthracimycin is important because it is an entirely new chemical class of antibacterials,” said UCSD professor of oceanography and pharmaceutical science William Fenical. Fenical helped found the field of marine biomedicine at Scripps. “The last time a new antibiotic was introduced was 2003, so we are in desperate need of new drugs to control drug resistant bacterial infections such as MRSA,” he said.
Of course, it will take time and a sizable investment before the new drug finds its way on to medicine carts, but the entire pharmaceutical industry now has details of the discovery. Fenical’s results were reported in the international edition of the German journal Angewandte Chemie, first published online June 17.
“When properly developed, anthracimycin and its analogs could improve the treatment of MRSA and other human pathogenic infectious diseases,” Fenical said.
That potential includes anthracis. Anthrax, which is produced by the bacterium Bacillus anthracis, is currently treatable with several antibiotics. However, Fenical told Homeland1, if this bacterium is engineered as a biological weapon to be resistant to existing antibiotics, medicine will need new discoveries like anthracimycin to provide effective treatment.
The discovery provides further evidence that the oceans and their unexplored regions represent an almost infinite resource for new materials that could one day treat a variety of diseases.
Maybe just in time.
One family of bacteria, called Carbapenem-Resistant Enterobacteriaceae, or CRE, has become increasingly resistant to last-resort antibiotics during the past decade. According to the Centers for Disease control, during just the first half of 2012 almost 200 hospitals and long-term acute care facilities treated at least one patient with CRE infection.
“CRE are nightmare bacteria," said CDC director Tom Frieden, MD, in a March statement. "Our strongest antibiotics don’t work and patients are left with potentially untreatable infections.”