Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Sweet Revenge against Superbugs

A synthetic sugar could be the latest weapon in the fight against superbugs following the potential discovery of a new class of antibiotics inspired by sugar molecules produced by bacteria.

New antibiotics to which bacteria are unlikely to develop resistance are urgently needed to combat the rise of drug-resistant bacteria.

Prof Matt Cooper of The University of Queensland’s Institute for Molecular Bioscience said that bacteria are less likely to become resistant to an antibiotic that is based on a modified version of their own sugar.

“Bacteria have cell walls similar to the walls of a brick house except, instead of mortar, the walls are held together by sugar polymers,” Cooper said. “But if you add one of our modified sugar molecules, they stop the linking process, destroying the cell wall and killing the bacteria.

“The cell wall has been a target for antibiotics such as penicillin and vancomycin before, but the difference here is that we are stopping a centrally important part of the cell wall-linking process.”

Dr Johannes Zuegg said the team examined hundreds of versions of modified sugar molecules to find those that will kill bacteria and are non-toxic to human cells. “Most molecules screened to become drugs have a flat, planar shape, whereas these molecules are three-dimensional,” Zuegg said. “This means we can build on the sugar core in a variety of ways to make thousands of different combinations in three-dimensional space.”

The research has been published in Nature Communications.