An antibiotic that was discovered more than 40 years ago, but never made its way to clinical trials, could lead the fight against superbugs, scientists say.
A team of researchers in Australia found octapeptin was effective in fighting off common infections such as pneumonia and meningitis — both of which are becoming incredibly difficult to treat because they’ve developed resistance to common antibiotics.
Antibiotic resistance is one of the biggest threats to global health, according to the World Health Organization. On Monday, WHO reported that resistance is continuing to increase worldwide and “some of the worlds most common — and potentially most dangerous — infections are proving drug resistant.”
If octapeptin becomes a widely available drug, it could be a big step forward in the fight against superbugs. But that’s easier said than done.
Taking a drug and turning it into something that people can actually use is a gruelling process, one that can take decades. Dr. Gerry Wright is a professor of biochemistry at McMaster University who has been working in drug development for more than 25 years. Throughout his entire career, his team has discovered a single molecule with pharmaceutical potential.
“Drug discovery is hard, hard work and certainly not for the faint of heart,” Wright says. “Plus, it takes a really long time.”
In the 1940s there was an antibiotic boom — discoveries were plentiful and infections that once meant an automatic death sentence were suddenly easy to treat. Nearly 25,000 chemicals were discovered around this time, but Wright estimates that less than 200 of them have made it to clinical use since the golden age of drug discovery. Since creating new drugs has proved incredibly difficult, Wright says there’s certainly promise in the Australian team’s tactic of going back to the antibiotic archives.
But Wright cautioned that the exciting discovery is still in very early stages. Approving any type of antibiotic for clinical use requires a lot work, first proving its effectiveness in a laboratory setting, before moving onto clinical trials.
“It’s certainly a positive advance forward, but the reality is that tomorrow they could test it in an animal and the animal still dies so the drug is rendered useless,” he says.
Wright says pharmaceutical companies haven’t shown much interest in developing new antibiotics, partially because it’s incredibly difficult and time consuming. Another reason is that companies don’t make a lot of money off antibiotics since they’re only taken for a few days or weeks until an infection is cleared.
But perhaps the biggest problem with new antibiotics is that they too could eventually stop working. And that’s why researchers have also been working on alternatives, such as phage therapy (a type of virus that attacks bacteria and kills it) and new vaccines.
“I think anyone who says they have a crystal ball and thinks we should do things just one way (in the fight against resistance) is insane,” Wright says. “There’s no panacea out there and all the problems we have with antibiotics exist with other methods as well.”
Even vaccines are difficult to create because viruses continually change their structure.
Although Wright admits we’re in a “pretty dark situation” when it comes to protecting ourselves against bacteria, he says it’s not all doom and gloom. He’s confident that Canada could be a world leader in research that will be used to develop new drugs and antibiotic alternatives.
“Going forward, we have to be careful using antibiotics and we have to be innovative,” he said. “But we also need drugs — they’ve become the foundation of medicine.”