Racing To Beat Superbugs: Study Shows Promise

Mar 28, 2018


A research team led by Rhode Island Hospital’s chief of infectious diseases has discovered a new class of antibiotics that could one day help fight bacteria that have developed resistance to current antibiotics.

The study, published Wednesday in the scientific journal, Nature, identified  two compounds, called synthetic retinoids, which are chemically related to Vitamin A that can defend against the drug-resistant bacteria known as MRSA, which stands for Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus.

The discovery comes at a time when the development of new antibiotics is increasingly rare as pharmaceutical companies have moved away from antibiotics research in favor of more profitable drugs. Meanwhile, the overuse and misuse of conventional antibiotics has exacerbated the problem of drug-resistant bacteria.

“It takes 20 years to develop a product, to get to market it takes about $1 billion in investment,” Dr. Eleftherios Mylonakis, chief of infectious diseases at Rhode Island and The Miriam hospitals and the study’s lead author, said. “And then a year later, on average, you have resistance.’’

More than 80,000 people nationwide contract aggressive MRSA infections each year, and 11,000 of them die as a result, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Though MRSA primarily affects ill people in hospitals, in recent years it has spread into the general population, including healthy athletes and children.

Mylonakis and researchers at the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University screened more than 82,000 compounds to find ones that could be effective antibiotics but not toxic to mammalian or human cells. Two of the compounds -- synthetic retinoids which are chemically related to Vitamin A – were able to fight off MRSA in laboratory roundworms. And one of the compounds and a less toxic and more effective chemical derivative also worked in lab mice.

In addition to Brown University, Mylonakis collaborated on the study with researchers from Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary, Massachusetts General Hospital, Emory University and Northwestern University.

The research was funded by grants from the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of General Medical Sciences.