Team combats antibiotic resistance with engineered viruses

Mar 02, 2009 by Anne Trafton

A new approach to fighting bacterial infections, developed at MIT and Boston University, could help prevent bacteria from developing antibiotic resistance and help kill those that have already become resistant.

Researchers from both schools have engineered a virus that knocks out bacterial defense systems, enhancing the effectiveness of antibiotics. The work is reported in the March 2 online issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Antibiotic-resistant bacteria pose a serious and growing health risk. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that the antibiotic-resistant bacterium MRSA, or methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, causes approximately 94,000 infections and contributes to 19,000 deaths annually in the United States, through contact that can occur in a variety of locations, including schools, hospitals and homes.

New drugs are needed to combat these superbugs, but very few new antibiotics have been developed in the past few decades. "There are a lot of targets to go after, but people haven't been able to find the drugs," said Timothy Lu, lead author of the paper and an MD candidate in the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology (HST).

Lu and James Collins, Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator and professor of biomedical engineering at BU, took a new approach: engineering existing bacteriophages (viruses that infect bacteria) to attack specific targets. "It's much easier to modify phages than to invent a new drug," said Lu.

Lu, who completed his PhD at HST last year, won the $30,000 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize and the grand prize in the National Collegiate Inventors Competition in 2008 for his work with engineered bacteriophages.

The engineered viruses described in the PNAS paper attack the SOS system, a bacterial DNA repair system enlisted when bacteria are exposed to antibiotics that damage DNA, and other gene networks. Used in conjunction with traditional antibiotics, the viruses undermine bacterial defense systems and prevent resistance from developing.

The researchers tested their phages with three major classes of antibiotics (quinolones, beta-lactams and aminoglyclosides) and had good results with all three. In mice infected with bacteria, those treated with both engineered bacteriophage and antibiotics had an 80 percent survival rate, compared with 50 percent for mice treated with natural bacteriophages and antibiotics, 20 percent for mice treated only with antibiotics, and 10 percent for untreated mice.

"This work lays the groundwork for the development of a library of bacteriophages, each designed to attack different bacterial targets," said Lu.

In 2007, Lu and Collins demonstrated the successful creation of an engineered virus that could attack and destroy surface "biofilms" of harmful bacteria that can form on industrial and medical devices. Such viruses could be used in food processing plants, hospitals or other settings where dangerous bacteria can accumulate.

Source: Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Explore further: Herpes virus hijackers

Related Stories

Gel filled with nanosponges cleans up MRSA infections

May 18, 2015

Nanoengineers at the University of California, San Diego developed a gel filled with toxin-absorbing nanosponges that could lead to an effective treatment for skin and wound infections caused by MRSA (methicillin-resistant ...

Producing jet fuel compounds from fungus

May 05, 2015

Washington State University researchers have found a way to make jet fuel from a common black fungus found in decaying leaves, soil and rotting fruit. The researchers hope the process leads to economically ...

Research prompts rethink of enzyme evolution

Apr 28, 2015

New research by scientists at New Zealand's University of Otago suggests a need for a fundamental rethink of the evolutionary path of enzymes, the proteins vital to all life on Earth.

Report details benefits of investment in basic research

Apr 27, 2015

Last year was a notable one for scientific achievements: In 2014, European researchers discovered a fundamental new particle that sheds light on the origins of the universe, and the European Space Agency ...

Recommended for you

Herpes virus hijackers

May 22, 2015

The virus responsible for the common cold sore hijacks the machinery within our cells, causing them to break down and help shield the virus from our immune system, researchers from the University of Cambridge ...

Bacteria cooperate to repair damaged siblings

May 21, 2015

A University of Wyoming faculty member led a research team that discovered a certain type of soil bacteria can use their social behavior of outer membrane exchange (OME) to repair damaged cells and improve ...

New antibody insecticide targets malaria mosquito

May 20, 2015

Malaria is a cruel and disabling disease that targets victims of all ages. Even now, it is estimated to kill one child every minute. Recent progress in halting the spread of the disease has hinged on the ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.