Swiss take major step in fight against antimicrobial resistance

Gram-negative bacteria can cause a range of infections including certain types of pneumonia and sexually transmitted diseases Keystone / Philipp Guelland

Researchers at the University of Zurich have discovered the first new antibiotics class since the 1960s that can eradicate Gram-negative bacteria.

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Antimicrobial resistance, especially Gram-negative bacteria, is an increasing health threat, according to the World Health Organization. Gram-negative bacteria can cause a range of infections including certain types of pneumonia and sexually transmitted diseases such as gonorrhoea. One species of the bacteria, E.coli, is a common cause of foodborne disease. 

Fluoroquinolones, the previous class of antibiotics to reach the market against these microorganisms, were developed in the 1960s and are losing their effectiveness. This had made the search for new antibiotics an urgent priority but, to date, no clinical antibiotics have targeted the outer membrane of the bacteria, essential to protect cells from antibiotics.

In a study published on Wednesday in science journal Nature, researchers at the University of Zurich in collaboration with pharmaceutical company Polyphor have discovered antibiotics that interact with essential outer membrane proteins in Gram-negative bacteria.

The antibiotics destroy the integrity of the outer membrane of the Gram-negative bacteria, which has the important function of protecting the bacteria from toxic environmental factors, such as antibiotics. This causes the bacteria to die slowly. In contrast to existing antibiotics, this new class has not shown any resistance.

Polyphor, a former University of Zurich start-up founded in 1996, is developing one of the compounds for clinical trials.

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