At the beginning of the 20th century, the discovery of antibiotics had a great impact on human health. For the first time, we could treat diseases in previously unthinkable ways, by using compounds synthesized in nature by plants and, strikingly, also by microorganisms. For example, Penicillin, the first discovered antibiotic, was isolated from a type of fungus (Penicillium chrysogenum) and it was used during the Second World War against many bacterial infections. For years, we could develop antimicrobials from these microorganisms that saved millions of lives. But, unfortunately, we have been using (and overusing) them and this behaviour has brought us undesired consequences: bacteria evolved and acquired resistance to them. As a consequence, conventional antibiotics have become less effective or even useless against some pathogens reducing the catalogue of available antibiotics.
But interestingly, fungi were not the only microorganisms with antibacterial properties. Taking a closer look at bacteria themselves we discovered that they were producing compounds to fight each other, what turned bacteria into a very interesting source of antibiotics. There are still billions of bacteria out there producing billions of compounds some of which could become potential drugs in the future.
But discovering them is like finding a needle in a haystack. Imagine having to go one by one, searching for these compounds, trying to find the perfect one to fight a specific bacterium. This is a tedious job, a very slow process and means a tremendous economic effort. Thus, we must refine our way of screening bacteria.
That’s why one of our partners, NAICONS, has developed a way to find promising bacterial compounds in much less time. Their technology rapidly recognizes the most promising compounds, accelerating the process of finding those most likely to become a new antibiotic. Read this interview to the NAICONS founder to discover more about their work.
Our struggles don’t stop here, because once we’ve found the bacteria, there is another problem we face. Naturally, bacteria synthesize very low amounts of antibiotics, that don’t meet our high demands for medical use. For decades biotechnology has tried to increase this process engineering bacteria with higher production yields. Unfortunately, this is not an easy task, because high amounts of antibiotics can interfere with their metabolism and kill them. This hampers the scale-up of the manufacturing process, increasing the costs and thus the final price of the drugs. Then, how can we synthesise high amounts of a drug without killing our bacterial “factory”? In Raft4Biotech we believe that the answer is hidden again within bacteria, in structures known as lipid rafts.
These are regions in the bacterial membrane that could act as isolated rooms, where we could capture and compartmentalize the synthesis of the antibiotic, this way avoiding the interferences with the rest of bacterial metabolism. This would eventually ensure bacterial survival and increase the effectiveness of the manufacturing processes. And this is precisely what we want to test at Rafts4Biotech. To do so, we will use nisin, an antibiotic with a great therapeutic potential that is naturally produced by the bacterium Lactococcus lactis. We will target the synthesis of this antimicrobial into the lipid rafts of our bacterial “factory” (learn more about its characteristics here).
So, we can’t stop the antibiotic resistance process, but we can try to be one step ahead of bacteria. With our double approach for an improved search and synthesis of novel antimicrobials, we aim at winning the race against antibiotic resistance.