Research by a team of Penn State scientists has found an important extra step in protein synthesis that bacteria use to assure quality control. The extra step, called “trans-translation” keeps the protein manufacturing process in bacteria moving along smoothly. However, since the trans-translational step is NOT found in plant or animal cells, this step opens the door to a whole new type of antibiotic. The research team, led by Kenneth Keiler, tested more than 600,000 small molecules and found 46 that disrupt the trans-translation process. One promising candidate, called KKL-35, has proven especially effective. Initial testing against bacteria that cause food poisoning, anthrax, and tuberculosis were very promising. What about antibiotic resistance? The team found no mutant strains of the bacteria they tested that were resistant to KKL-35. Promising indeed! Perhaps a new generation of antibiotics is on the way!
That would be good news. The increasing prominence of “superbugs” that are resistant to many antibiotics has health care workers worried. John Rex of the pharmaceutical company AstraZenica pointed out that, while we let research on new antibiotics lag, bacteria were mutating to develop resistance to existing drugs. He noted new antibiotics are hard to discover and develop, and that users expect them to be low-cost. However, this wouldn’t allow companies to cover the development cost of the drug, much less fund research for the next generation of antibiotics.
A 2009 Time magazine article cited the lack of research monies available for drug development: “New antibiotics are desperately needed, but the amount of money being spent on the research and development of these drugs is woefully inadequate.” With tight federal budgets and sequestration cutting the work of federally-funded researchers, new antibiotic development is caught between a time-crunch and a budget crisis. To speed up the development, the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services awarded $40 million to pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline to develop “medications to combat antibiotic resistance and biological agents that terrorists might use” with a promise of more money to come. Legislators and policy makers also are reviewing procedures for drug review and testing to find ways to speed up the process while assuring product safety.
Hopefully, with additional grants and funding, the work of researchers like the Keiler team at Penn State will be supported, and their findings will move forward through a streamlined development process. Watch out bacteria…we are on the lookout for your weaknesses and are ready to exploit them!
Learn more about protein synthesis, bacteria, and Immunity from the Archive: