Researchers in the United States have managed to re-engineer a vital antibiotic to better attack some of the world’s most threatening superbugs. A new version of vancomycin is designed to be super tough and much more potent than the old drug. The changes made appear to have worked, increasing the strength and durability of the drug.

Vancomycin-resistant enterococci or VRE is a hard-to-treat infection that can be found in hospitals. The infection is considered to be one of the greatest threat to human health, according to the World Health Organization, causing dangerous wound and bloodstream infections. While some antibiotics still work against VRE, vancomycin is pretty much powerless.

A team at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla set out to see if they could restore vancomycin’s killing ability. Strategic modifications to the molecular structure of the drug made it better at destroying the cell walls of the bacteria. The team announced the finding in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Monday.

The new version of vancomycin fights bacteria in three different ways, making it much less likely that the bacteria will survive. Even if the bacteria found a solution to one, the organisms would still be killed by the other two. Lead researcher Dale Boger, Ph.D., said, “The antibiotic has three different, we call them ‘mechanisms’, by which it kills bacteria. And resistance to such an antibiotic would be very difficult to emerge.”

In clinical testing, the new version of vancomycin killed both vancomycin-resistant Enterococci and the original forms of Enterococci. There are hopes that the drug will be ready for use within five years, however, it is yet to be tested in animals and people. Boger’s team made the drug through a lengthy, 30-step process that they are now working to shorten.

This version of vancomycin is the first antibiotic to have three independent mechanisms of action. It’s more than 10 times as potent as an earlier version that introduced two lethal modifications and is more than 1,000 times as potent as standard vancomycin.

Prof Nigel Brown of the Microbiology Society said in an interview, “This development could be hugely important. Vancomycin is an antibiotic of last resort against some serious infections. There has been great concern that resistance has been emerging.” The discovery could also mean that doctors would need to use less of the antibiotic to fight infection.

The frightening spread of antibiotic-resistant superbugs could return us to an era of deadly infectious diseases that have no effective treatment method. Experts have repeatedly warned that some infections could become untreatable. The fear of growing resistance to antibiotics has led doctors to restrict their use.

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