Northeastern University Researchers May Have Created the Next Generation of Antibiotics

The work appears in the journal Nature.

Antibiotics are overprescribed, and there’s been a highly publicized rise of infections that are resistant to the antibiotics we currently have in use. But researchers at Northeastern University may have just found what some scientists are calling a “game changing” discovery.

Northeastern University Distinguished Professor and the study’s lead author, Kim Lewis, says that pathogens’ resistance to antibiotics has put these microscopic organisms one step ahead of the scientists working to eradicate the problem, which is causing a public health crisis. But in the new research, Lewis and his team have discovered a new antibiotic that actually eliminates these pesky pathogens without resistance—so far.

The antibiotic is called teixobactin, at this time has only been tested on mice. In a press conference, Lewis said that it has not yet been tested on humans, “so its safety and effectiveness are not known.” Human studies should begin in about two years. Then, those studies will take “several years.” After that, even if the drug passes all tests, it won’t available for use for five or six years. “If it is approved,” he said, “it will probably have to be injected, not taken by mouth.”

Still, it may be worth the wait. The New York Times reports that the way the drug works makes it very “unlikely that bacteria will become resistant to it.” And, they write, “the method developed to produce the drug has the potential to unlock a trove of natural compounds to fight infections and cancer—molecules that were previously beyond scientists’ reach because the microbes that produce them could not be grown in the laboratory.”

The research was published Wednesday in the journal, Nature.

“Now, we can start changing our thinking about strategies for antibiotic discovery,” Lewis said. “So far, the strategy has been based on developing new antibiotics faster than the pathogens acquire resistance. Teixobactin presents a new opportunity to develop compounds that are essentially free of resistance—a more intelligent approach.”

The research team says teixobactin’s discovery could be the what was needed to treat chronic infections that are highly resistant to antibiotics, such as MRSA and tuberculosis.

This is how it was discovered:

The screening of soil microorganisms has produced most antibiotics, but this limited resource was overmined in the 1960s, Lewis explained. He and Epstein spent years seeking to address this problem by tapping into a new source of antibiotics beyond those created by synthetic means: uncultured bacteria, which make up 99 percent of all species in external environments. They developed a novel method for growing uncultured bacteria in their natural environment, which led to the founding of NovoBiotic. Their approach involves the iChip, a miniature device Epstein’s team created that can isolate and help grow single cells in their natural environment and thereby provides researchers with much improved access to uncultured bacteria. NovoBiotic has since assembled about 50,000 strains of uncultured bacteria and discovered 25 new antibiotics, of which teixobactin is the latest and most interesting, Lewis said.

The antibiotic was discovered during a routine screening for antimicrobial material using this method. Lewis then tested the compound for resistance development and did not find mutant MSRA or Mycobacterium tuberculosis resistant to teixobactin, which was found to block several different targets in the cell wall synthesis pathway.

“Our impression is that nature produced a compound that evolved to be free of resistance,” Lewis said. “This challenges the dogma that we’ve operated under that bacteria will always develop resistance. Well, maybe not in this case.”

The next step, researchers say, is to develop teixobactin into a drug.