The antibiotic strikes back

A chemistry professor wants to make antibiotics less susceptible to antibiotic resistance.

University of South Carolina faculty tend to dream big. From education to international business, from aerospace to the arts to medicine and public health, they’re always coming up with a new approach to an old process or a novel solution to some vexing problem. This spring, USC Times, the university’s quarterly magazine for faculty and staff, launched the “Big Ideas” series to give faculty a platform to share their dreams and visions, whether they hope to transform their field, improve higher education or even change the world. These are their stories.

If you have a bad infection, there are very few antibiotics that can be used to treat it. And if you get infected by a superbug like MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus), you’ll probably end up getting a last-resort antibiotic that has a lot of side effects. If it fails, you might die.

The problem is that the pharmaceutical industry is reluctant to invest in antibiotic discovery because a lot of these drugs lose their effectiveness very quickly, and the companies can’t recoup their investment fast enough. In fact, you could say we’re in the post-antibiotic era. Since 1980 there have been no single new antibiotics on the market, just derivatives of previous ones.

As a society we can try to keep doing what we’ve been doing for decades — find new active agents, test them and develop them into antibiotics — but that’s difficult because there’s little financial incentive for the pharmaceutical companies.

A second way is to discover antibacterial agents that are not classic antibiotics. Antimicrobial polymers are getting some interest now because they are more difficult for bacteria to develop resistance against.

A third way is to extend the life of existing antibiotics by combining them with tailored polymers that protect antibiotics from the bacterial attack. One of the ways bacteria fight antibiotics is to release an enzyme that hydrolyzes the medication. Our polymer technology neutralizes the enzyme so the bacteria have a low chance of successfully attacking the antibiotic. We’ve found that our polymer can combine with many different types of antibiotics, both oral and topical.

Even better, the polymer we’ve developed is not only anti-microbial, it’s also antifungal. It works by attacking the charged cells of the bacteria, and while bacteria can mutate and change structures, they can’t change their charge. It’s much more difficult for the bacteria to develop resistance to that kind of attack.

We have NIH funding for this, and we’re trying to start up a company to do translational research. The first step will be to target a particular type of infection — maybe pneumonia — and test it before moving to Phase II trials. Then, who knows? Most medicines fail in Phase II because they’re too toxic.

Our ultimate goal is to get enough positive results in the testing phase so that a large company buys our company or we set up partial or exclusive licensing to use our polymers. It would take a long time — five to 10 years — before the FDA could approve it, but the return to the university could be huge.

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