A new antibiotic that is effective at killing anthrax and superbug MRSA bacteria could be a weapon in the fight against antibiotic resistance – and terrorism.
Anthracimycin, a chemical compound derived from the Steptomyces bacteria, was discovered in the ocean off the coast of Santa Barbara in California. Its unique chemical structure makes it a new addition to the antibiotic family that could pave the way for new drugs.
Most new antibiotics are derivatives of existing compounds. The last new naturally-derived antibiotic that entered the market was Daptomycin, a soil-derived compound from Streptomyces roseosporus, approved a decade ago in 2003. It was originally discovered in 1986.
"The discovery of truly new antibiotic compounds is quite rare," said William Fenical, Professor of Oceanography and Pharmaceutical Science at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego, who led the research team.
"It's not just one discovery," he said. "It opens up the opportunity to develop analogues – potentially hundreds. Alexander Fleming discovered Penicillin in the 1928 and from that more than 25 drugs were developed. When you find a new antibiotic structure, it goes beyond just one."
MRSA and anthrax
Initial tests suggest that Anthracimycin is particularly potent against MRSA and anthrax, Bacillus anthracis, a lethal bacterial infection that is commonly associated today with outbreaks in livestock and its threat as a biological weapon – particularly after it was deliberately spread in the US mail following the 9/11 attacks in 2001.
The team tested the compound on lab mice infected with MRSA – which would have killed within five days. At at 1mg dose per 1Kg of a mouse's weight, it proved effective in eradicating the infection in about 85% of mice.
MRSA (meticillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus) can cause life-threatening infections and has been a scourge in hospitals because it is resistant to a number of widely used antibiotics.
Antibiotics are highly effective in treating anthrax but it would also possible for terrorists to manufacture a drug resistant strain from known antibiotics, Fenical said. The new discovery could be used by a government to develop an antibiotic that was withheld from public consumption for emergency use.
The team has openly published their findings in the German applied chemistry journal Angewandte Chemie for pharmaceutical companies and governments that may be interested in starting research and development (RND) programmes.