Teixobactin is a new class of antibiotics. It has been found to treat many bacterial infections such as tuberculosis, septicaemia, and C. diff, and could be available within five years.
But more importantly, it may pave the way for a new generation of antibiotics because of the way it was discovered.
Scientists have always believed that the soil was teeming with new and potent antibiotics because bacteria have developed novel ways to fight off other microbes.
Antibiotic resistance is spreading faster than the discovery of new compounds in medicine, which is causing a health crisis. Screening soil microorganisms produced most antibiotics, but the limited resource of cultivable bacteria was overmined by the 1960s. Synthetic approaches for producing antibiotics have been unable to replace this platform.
An antibiotic known as teixobactin was discovered in a screen of uncultured bacteria.
The properties of this compound have suggested a path for developing antibiotics, which are likely to avoid the development of resistance.
They were used for successfully treating antibiotic-resistant infections in mice. And more importantly, when they tried to evolve strains of bacteria that resist the drug deliberately, they failed. Teixobactin appears resistant to the resistance!
Bacteria will eventually develop ways of resisting teixobactin but that it will surely take decades rather than years for this to happen. That will buy us time. Teixobactin isn’t even the most promising part of its own story. They have developed a device called an iChip, which allows scientists to explore the virtually untapped wilds of bacteria for potential antibiotics and other interesting unknown chemicals.
And iChip may be a boon not just for antibiotics discovery, but for finding other types of drugs as well as potential energy sources. Any industry which needs microbes for novel chemicals and inspiration may benefit from this technology.
iChip is just a board with several holes in it. The researchers filled the holes by collecting soil, shaking it in water to release any microbes, heavily diluting the sample, mixing it with liquid agar, and pouring the agar into iChip. The dilution ensures that each hole, now plugged by a disc of solid agar, contains just one bacterial cell. They then covered the discs in permeable membranes and dunked the whole board into a beaker of the original soil. The microbes are constrained to the agar, but they can still soak up nutrients, growth factors, and everything else they need from their natural environment.
“The method has the potential to be truly transformative, giving us access to a much greater diversity of environmental bacteria than previously imagined,” says Gautam Dantas from Washington University in St Louis.
So, teixobactin represents and an exciting and huge leap forward in the process of antibiotic drug discovery – and we can expect more novel antibiotics to follow.