February 14, 2009 / 12:11 AM / 10 years ago

Sea sponge shows promise as superbug antidote

CHICAGO, Feb 13 (Reuters) - A compound from a sea sponge was able to reverse antibiotic resistance in several strains of bacteria, making once-resistant strains succumb to readily available antibiotics, U.S. researchers said on Friday.

“We can resensitize these pathogenic bacteria to standard, current-generation antibiotics,” said Peter Moeller of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Hollings Marine Laboratory in Charleston, South Carolina.

Drug-resistant bacteria are a growing problem in hospitals worldwide, marked by the rise of superbugs such as methicillin-resistant Staphyloccus aureus, or MRSA. Such infections kill about 19,000 people a year in the United States.

Moeller, who is working with researchers at the Medical University of South Carolina and North Carolina State University, said the team noticed a sponge thriving in what was an otherwise dead coral reef.

“It begged the question how is it surviving when everything else is dying?” Moeller told reporters at the American American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Chicago. “This opened up a whole new arena for us.”

The researchers began chopping the sponge into smaller and smaller bits to isolate the properties that helped the sponge thrive in hostile marine conditions.

The team found that these bits of sponge were able to repel bacterial biofilms — a slimy substance bacteria form to help stick to surfaces.

“What we found is these (sponge) derivatives actually dispersed existing bacterial biofilms as well as inhibited production of subsequent bacterial biofilms,” Moeller said.

“This is a very exciting result when you realize that 65 to 80 percent of all human pathogenic infections are based on biofilms,” he added.

Moeller said the team tested the substance on some of the toughest pathogens, including MRSA.

They found when they mixed this sponge material in with an antibiotic, they were able to make several types of once-resistant bacteria sensitive to antibiotics.

Since the compounds are non-toxic, Moeller said the team is now working with a number of medical device companies to incorporate it into the plastic materials used to make devices like stents used to prop open diseased arteries or in intravenous lines used in critically ill patients. He declined to name the companies.

“The idea is that we could get rid of bacterial infections that are so common to them,” Moeller said.

Eventually, he foresees a new class of “helper drugs” that could restore the potency of antibiotics that have lost the war to superbugs. “Getting it through FDA (U.S. Food and Drug Administration) approval will take awhile,” he said.

Editing by Eric Beech

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