Health & Wellness

Breakthrough in the War on Superbugs

Causing disease and immune to medicine, drug-resistant microbes are a deadly threat; now US researchers think they’ve found a weapon to use against them

By Caitlin Finlay


With COVID-19 demanding all our focus, the danger posed by the rise of drug-resistant superbugs—microbes that are immune to antibiotics and other antimicrobials—gets little attention from the public these days. Yet the misuse and overuse of antibiotics have created a health-care crisis; the World Health Organization ranks antimicrobial resistance (AMR) as one of the top 10 global health threats. New medications are needed to treat these superbugs, but there have been few advances. Now scientists at The Wistar Institute, a non-profit biomedical research institution in Philadelphia, have discovered a new type of compound that can help fight AMR.

Publishing their findings in the journal Nature, the US scientists report having discovered a new antibiotic that can not only kill drug-resistant microbes, but also create an immune response to them. Because of that double whammy, these new antimicrobials have been named dual-acting immune-antibiotics (DAIAs).

Used to treat infections in humans, animals, and even plants, antimicrobials are medications that include antibiotics, antivirals, antifungals, and antiparasitics. The drugs attack the essential functions of the bacteria, virus, fungi, and parasites until they’re no longer a threat. AMR is the result of these microbes changing over time, adapting to prevent antimicrobials from attacking them.

The resulting superbugs aren’t treatable with current medications, and common infections last longer. Examples of bacterial infections that are becoming resistant to current antibiotics include urinary tract infections, sexually transmitted infections, sepsis, and some forms of diarrhea. AMR threatens us with an increased risk for death and disability, as well as the financial effects of long hospital stays and higher medication costs.

“We took a creative, double-pronged strategy to develop new molecules that can kill difficult-to-treat infections while enhancing the natural host immune response,” Farokh Dotiwala, an assistant professor in the institute’s Vaccine & Immunotherapy Center and lead author of the research, said in a press release. “We believe this innovative strategy may represent a potential landmark in the world’s fight against AMR, creating a synergy between the direct killing ability of antibiotics and the natural power of the immune system.”

Photo: iStock/ClaudioVentrella.