Research published this week has discovered a potential new class of antibiotic that could be used to treat serious hospital infections caused by antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Here’s what we know.

What is antibiotic resistance?

The overuse of antibiotics has led to the emergence of “superbugs”, as the NHS explains. Superbugs are bacteria that have evolved to survive antibiotics, which would normally kill them.

The World Health Organisation says “the global rise in antibiotic resistance poses a significant threat, diminishing the efficacy of common antibiotics against widespread bacterial infections”. This “threatens our ability to treat common infections and life-saving procedures”, such as cancer chemotherapy and caesarean section.

What does this study show?

There are different strains of bacteria that have developed resistance to different types of antibiotics. This study by US researchers focused on carbapenem-resistant Acinetobacter baumannii (CRAB).

Dr Andrew Edwards, senior lecturer in molecular microbiology at Imperial College London, who was not involved in the research, said: “CRAB is an important cause of infection in people in hospitals. This is especially the case for patients who are on ventilators. Although it’s not a very aggressive pathogen, it is resistant to lots of different kinds of antibiotic, which makes treatment very difficult and often requires doctors to use drugs that aren’t very effective.”

The bacterium’s structure includes a “membrane” which surrounds it and protects it from attack.

But a new compound tested in this research, named zosurabalpin, appears to prevent CRAB’s ability to build this protective membrane by stopping one of the building blocks from being transported to the outer part of the cell. This prevents the membrane from forming properly and leads to cell death.

The compound was tested on mice who’d been infected with CRAB as part of the study.

Does this mean we could have a way to defeat antibiotic resistance?

Dr Edwards said that “this recent work is really exciting” and “there is a hope that the approach used here could be effective in finding new antibiotics for other bacteria”, not just CRAB.

However, he noted that the development of new drugs from animal studies into humans “is very challenging” – and this research was only carried out on mice.

And Timothy Rutland Walsh, professor of medical microbiology at the University of Oxford, said although the compound is “novel and its activity very impressive”, it is only currently likely to be “deployed in high income countries”.

This research just looked into CRAB, but there are other bacterium that have developed resistance to antibiotics, such as Pseudomonas aeruginosa. MRSA is also resistant to a number of widely used antibiotics, including penicillin. The WHO also notes that Klebsiella pneumoniae is a common intestinal bacterium that is also showing “elevated resistance levels against critical antibiotics”.

(Image Credit: Durand Thibaut/ABACA/Shutterstock)