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Yale Scientists Find A New Way To Create Stronger Antibiotics

National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, National Institutes of Health
Image of Group A streptococcus bacteria.

Scientists at Yale University have made a discovery that could lead to stronger, longer-lasting antibiotics. They’ve found a way to manufacture an ingredient that’s normally found in nature.

The ingredient is called pleuromutilin. It comes from fungi. Scientists found it in the 1950s, but it’s expensive and hard to turn that fungus-derived chemical into antibiotics. Yale Professor Seth Herzon led the team of chemists that found a way around that.

“We asked the question, could we basically make pleuromutilin from scratch in the laboratory starting with simple commercial re-agents?”

Turns out they could. Pleuromutilin has an advantage over most antibiotics. Bacteria are really good at mutating – they can wriggle out of the control of many antibiotics and take new forms. That means scientists have to keep making stronger and stronger antibiotics. Herzon says it’s just like natural selection.

“Basically, every time we treat a patient with an antibiotic, hopefully we kill off all the bacteria, but many time we just select for the bacteria that have mutations that allow them to proliferate.”

But pleuromutilin not only kills off most of the bacteria, it makes it hard for the survivors to reproduce. The only pleuromutilin-based antibiotic to make it to the market lasted seven years before bacteria became resistant. That’s basically an eternity as far as antibiotics go. But Herzon says we need a lot more antibiotics like that, because bacteria are only getting more resistant.

“It’s a problem that is here now that we’re just sort of living with. If we don’t make headway in terms of new antibiotics, we run a risk of returning to an area where common infections are lethal.”

Scientists know pleuromutilin works against at least three major strains of bacteria. But because it’s been so hard to get in the past, Herzon says pleuromutilin is still mostly unexplored territory. Now that we can cook it up in a lab, he says there’s no telling what it could do.

Davis Dunavin loves telling stories, whether on the radio or around the campfire. He started in Missouri and ended up in Connecticut, which, he'd like to point out, is the same geographic trajectory taken by Mark Twain.