Kelly Servick in Science:
Drug-resistant bacteria are thwarting the world’s last-resort antibiotics, leading scientists to seek new compounds from poisonous frogs, backyard soil bacteria, and other wildlife. Now, scientists have found the makings of an exceptional microbe killer inside us: By tweaking a naturally occurring peptide—a short chain of amino acids—found in the human body, researchers have designed a drug that could wipe out obstinate microbes resistant to all available treatments. The candidate, now headed to human trials for skin infections, adds “an important piece … to the puzzle of creating a perfect antibiotic,” says Kim Lewis, a microbiologist at Northeastern University in Boston who was not involved in the work. When a small subset of bacteria survives antibiotic treatment, an infection can get out of control fast. As these resilient microbes thrive, they can group together on a surface—like a wound or a medical device—and encase themselves in a slimy protective layer known as a biofilm. Such colonies are hard for drugs to penetrate, and they harbor dormant cells called persisters that can quietly weather an antibiotic assault only to come roaring back later. Such infections “are the really nasty things for patients,” says immunologist Peter Nibbering at Leiden University Medical Center in the Netherlands.
Nibbering and a team of Dutch collaborators are trying to combat these biofilm-associated infections by improving on a human peptide called LL-37, which helps regulate the body’s immune response. LL-37 already has some natural bacteria-killing abilities, and the researchers previously shortened the peptide to make a more powerful variant, consisting of 24 of the 37 original amino acids. In the new work, they optimized this peptide by making a series of random replacements to its building blocks without disrupting its overall structure. One variation, dubbed SAAP-148, proved a powerful little weapon, the team reports online today in Science Translational Medicine. Whereas most traditional antibiotics target specific groups of bacteria and kill by disrupting key mechanisms of those microbes, SAAP-148 is more of a generalist. It kills by damaging most any bacterium’s plasma membrane, causing it to spill its contents and deflate.