Researchers at McGill University have figured out a way to take 3D images of megaenzymes that help create the antibiotics used in today’s medicine, which may lead to the development of next-generation antibiotics.
The study published in the journal Nature describes the novel approach researchers used to capture images of the enzymes called nonribosomal peptide synthetases (NRPS’s). Up until now, these NRPS’s remained elusive, since they’re not only microscopic but fast moving. So, the McGill research team deployed a chemical process to paralyze the enzyme and then used a technique called X-ray crystallography to produce the 3D images.
“These 3D pictures revealed the totally remarkable way the NRPS works to synthesize its product,” says Janice Reimer, PhD student and first author on the paper. “Parts of other NRPS’s have been pictured before but never ones that incorporate interesting chemical modifications into the antibiotic.”
The NRPS’s are crucial to providing specific bacteria the ability to kill other competing bacteria and thus are essential to the creation of next-generation antibiotics.
“Once we understand enough, we can use modern bioengineering techniques to modify NRPS’s to produce all sorts of products with designer modifications, perhaps giving a veritable treasure trove of new medicines,” says Reimer.
This research is coming at a crucial time as antibiotic resistance becomes more of a reality in modern medicine. The World Health Organization has called antibiotic resistance a “serious threat to the achievements of modern medicine”, stating that, “without urgent, coordinated action by many stakeholders, the world is headed for a post-antibiotic era, in which common infections and minor injuries which have been treatable for decades can once again kill.”
In the United Kingdom, after an outbreak of highly drug-resistant gonorrhea happened last September, a national public health alert was announced. Recently, the Guardian has reported that England’s chief medical officer has stated that gonorrhea is “at risk of becoming an untreatable disease.”
In an interview with the CBC, Dr. Michael Gardam, Director of Infection Prevention and Control at Toronto’s University Health Network, said, “Infectious diseases have gone from having a real plethora of options to having extremely limited options for many patients.”
Along with continuing research into the nature and function of antimicrobials, however, governments are ramping up efforts to control the widespread use of antibiotics not only in the health services but also within the agricultural industry.
Agricultural producers have been using antibiotics in a preventative fashion for a long time, to keep animals from becoming sick. In 2013 the United States Food and Drug Administration reported that as much as 80% of the antibiotics used in the United States are fed to animals, with a 16% increase between the years 2009 and 2012.
To date, the Canadian and American governments have taken preliminary steps to phase out the regular use of antibiotics within the agricultural sector. The US FDA has initiated a voluntary plan with the food industry to eliminate the agricultural use of certain medically important microbials and Health Canada has issued a restriction on the agricultural use of antibiotics for the purposes of growth promotion in animals.