Traverse City Record-Eagle

January 9, 2008

Lauran Neergaard: Battling superbugs


Think of germs as gangsters. One thug lurking on a corner you might outrun, but a dozen swaggering down the street? Yikes.

Bacteria make their own gangs, clustering quietly in the body until there's a large enough group to begin an attack. This is the next frontier in fighting drug-resistant superbugs.

The idea: Don't just try to kill bacteria. The bugs will always find a way to thwart the next antibiotic.

The new goal is to disable bacteria's ability to sicken, so scientists can throw superbugs a one-two punch. And attempts to bust up germ gangs are leading the race to create these novel anti-infectives -- using everything from compounds in Pinot Noir to some popular bone-building drugs.

"It's a stealth approach," says chemist Kim Janda of the Scripps Research Institute, who is developing a vaccine against notorious drug-resistant staph that prevents the bacteria from ganging up.

"We're trying to find the Achilles heel in drug-resistant bacteria," adds Matthew Redinbo of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill -- who did find one.

Redinbo's team discovered that certain osteoporosis drugs blocked one E. coli germ from spreading antibiotic-resistance genes to another. Interrupting this recruitment of new gangsters confused the drug-resistant bugs enough that they committed suicide, leaving only easy-to-treat germs behind.

All of this research is in very early stages. But Dr. Julie Gerberding, chief of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, calls disarming bacteria a long-needed new approach.

It is "like lasers going in to destroy certain parts of the bacteria as opposed to a bomb that blows the whole thing up," Gerberding told Congress recently.

Indeed, despite a rise in bacteria that withstand today's best treatments, there are few novel antibiotics under development -- and germs have evolved such complex ways to survive antibiotics' frontal assault that new ones eventually will wear out, too.

Hence the quest to disarm germs. Scientists are trying to disable "virulence factors," molecules that help germs worm their way into the body, or block germ-emitted toxins.

"We're finding new ways to prevent disease without killing the microbial agent ... rather, neutralizing it somehow," says University of Rochester dentist Hyun Koo, who is using compounds left over from vineyards' wine-making to bust up gooey bacteria masses known as biofilms.

Adds Scripps' Janda: "If you break them up, they don't have that strength in number. They're not going to do like a gang and beat people up."