In September 2016, the United Nations made a special declaration pledging to fight the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, colloquially known as superbugs.

A lineup of baddies: E. coli in the center, flanked by its goons A. baumannii. Images from James Archer/CDC and David Dorward/NIAID.

About 2 million people catch one of these superbugs each year, and now there are even strains immune to nearly everything we can throw at them. A woman in Nevada recently died of a strain that resisted 26 different antibiotics.


“We’ve lost the ability to use many of our mainstream antibiotics,” said Oregon State University professor Bruce Geller. “Everything’s resistant to them now. That’s left us to try to develop new drugs to stay one step ahead of the bacteria."

But now Geller and a group of scientists have found an interesting twist. Instead of finding a new antibiotic, they found a way to make known medicines work again, thanks to a type of compound called PPMO.

If the fight against antibiotic resistance is a gritty war story, this new approach is like a spy novel.

Fighting against drug-resistant bacteria is an arms race. We make new weapons. They develop new shields against those weapons.

One defense that certain bacteria have is an enzyme known as NDM-1. It's good against a class of antibiotic known as carbapenems. Previously, what we could do to fight NDM-1 is either abandon carbapenems or try to add extra drugs to slow down NDM-1. But Geller's PPMO does something different.

Instead of going after NDM-1 itself, it attacks the messenger RNA that transmits NDM-1's blueprints. It kidnaps the messenger. No messenger means no NDM-1; no NDM-1 means our good-guy antibiotics are back in the fight.

Geller says it'll probably be about three years before human testing of PPMO.

Professor Geller. Image from Oregon State University.

So far, scientists have tested their work both on a petri dish and by giving sick mice the PPMO/antibiotic combo. It worked. They then even tried three different kinds of NDM-1 bacteria; it worked on all of them.

“It’s the same gene in different types of bacteria, so you only have to have one PPMO that’s effective for all of them," said Geller.

That said, creating new drugs is expensive and complicated. It's possible that this won't work for humans. The PPMO should be safe, since humans and other animals don't have NDM-1, but other things like side effects could come up. But even if it doesn't work, this approach opens up whole new avenues for research.

Through innovations like this, we can help push antibiotic resistance back and win the fight.

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Unfortunately, that bill did not pass.

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