Accidental breakthrough stops superbug in its tracks
An accidental drug discovery has paved the way to stop a superbug in its tracks and save thousands of patients from deadly hospital infections.
While trying to grow the killer Clostridioides difficile bacterium in a laboratory, a Monash University research team inadvertently uncovered an antibiotic capable of halting its life-threatening spread.
With 30 Australians dying from Clostridioides difficile each week, among the 30,000 patients suffering infections each year, the consequences could be massive.
After finding that an old and now seldom-used type of antibiotics known as cephamycins were a virtual kryptonite for the superbug, Professor Dena Lyras hopes future epidemics can be avoided.
"It's a problem in every single hospital around the world," Prof Lyras said. "These spores hang around and when they hit someone susceptible who has been taking antibiotics, they set up a gut infection. It is like a snowball effect … it infects the next person."
Although antibiotics are able to kill off bad bugs, they also wipe out good bacteria, creating perfect conditions for Clostridioides difficile.
Publishing their results in Nature Microbiology, the Monash team revealed that while growing the bacterium in a lab they somehow produced a version that was missing the spores it uses to spread to other patients. Investigating the accidental discovery, they realised the liquid it was growing in contained cephamycins.
They then found that treating mice with the old antibiotic in combination with current treatments dramatically reduced spore numbers, effectively halting repeat infections.
As other antibiotic-resistant superbugs also rely on spore production to spread, the team are hoping the discovery could stop other infections.
Because cephamycin antibiotics are already proven safe, Prof Lyras is confident they could soon be "repurposed" and used in combination with existing treatments to prevent epidemics that have cost tens of thousands of lives in the UK and US over the past 15 years.
"If we had known this 15 years ago and it had been applied, perhaps it would have prevented a lot of those terrible epidemics we saw. A lot of people died, people were in a panic because nobody knew how to stop it," he said.