New antibiotics needed to fight drug-resistant superbugs
A global search is on for new antibiotics needed to fight drug-resistant superbugs that are invading hospitals. Without them, society could return to a pre-antibiotic period where even a simple infection could cause death.
Researchers from the University of Queensland, including Professor Matt Cooper from UQ's Institute for Molecular Bioscience (IMB), are leading the way to find them.
"This is really about saving lives," said Professor Cooper. "We're well aware that the superbugs are coming and starting to rise and affect a lot of people globally — it's time to fight back. We want to work together as a community, find better antibiotics and we need to start to look at diagnostics seriously.
Professor Cooper said scientists globally had millions of compounds that they had made, just sitting on shelves. As they were not designed for use as antibiotic drugs they had never been screened for potential antibiotic use.
The group is asking scientists to send their unused compounds to IMB for free testing against superbugs and also to check they are not harmful to human cells.
"We're really finding the first starting point. What's that compound? How does it work?" he said.
"How can we then build on that and work that into a compound that can be used by doctors to save lives?”
“It's early days, but it's very promising.”
The results of the research will be available worldwide, as the team establishes an open access database.
After contracting streptococcal infection three years ago, Matthew Ames, 42, became an antibiotics awareness advocate. Mr Ames had his arms and legs amputated in order to survive when his body went into toxic shock.
"Effectively my limbs were dying from the ends and producing a lot of toxins that were killing my body," he said.
"That's why my limbs had to be removed to keep me alive and that's the type of thing that happens if we haven't got the ability to stem infection."
The antibiotics doctors used on Mr Ames at the time have had serious side effects, including kidney problems and serious hearing difficulties. "Superbugs are more super because of what they can do to you," he said.
"They can be really quite common and what happens if they get out of control — if the common ones get resistant to antibiotics — then we're in a lot of trouble. I'm really very lucky to be alive. For me, if we can prevent somebody from going through what I went through then that would be a wonderful thing."
In Australia, 170 people die each week from bacterial sepsis, costing the health system about $1.3 billion a year, said Professor Cooper.
"It's becoming harder and harder to find new antibiotics," he said.
"We're at the last resort where we've gone back to very old compounds that are quite dirty and cause a lot of harm to hearing, to kidneys, and we're forced to use those."
Professor Cooper warned that time was running out for the research. He said that the risk is that in 10 or 20 years' time society could return to the age before antibiotics where one in three Australians died from infections before the age of 30.
"Things like hip replacements, chemotherapy — they won't be possible any more because we currently use antibiotics to stop those people who are immuno-compromised getting an infection," he said. "The time to act is now."
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