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article imageFighting back against hospital superbugs

By Tim Sandle     Oct 8, 2014 in Science
A new method has been proposed to fight superbugs. For this, researchers are targeting the specific genes that allow bacteria to survive antibiotic treatment.
Antibiotic resistance is a major global health issue. Most antibiotics function by attacking cellular functions within a bacterium, such as cell division or protein synthesis. The problem with antibiotic resistant microorganisms — the so-termed “superbugs” — is that some bacteria have evolved to become, effectively, untreatable with the range of standard antibiotics available to most healthcare providers. It is due to this growing problem that scientists have been considering new approaches to kill pathogens.
Scientists have been exploring a gene-editing system that can, in theory, disable any target gene. The editing system is called CRISPR. The system is an acronym for "clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats"; it involves a set of proteins that bacteria use to defend themselves against bacteriophages (viruses that infect bacteria). One such protein is a DNA-splicing enzyme termed Cas9. The scientists have found a means to use this DNA crunching enzyme against the very bacteria that contain it.
Initial trials have been with bacteria that have developed resistance to beta-lactam antibiotics, a group that includes the heavy-weight carbapenems. To target bacteria, the researchers have used viruses or plasmids (genetic information) to deliver their altered genes into the bacterial cell. Not only has the method been successful, it also appears that the method can be fine-tuned. One of the concerns about killing harmful bacteria is that most processes kill beneficial bacteria as well.
However, with the new editing software, researchers have shown that the CRISPR system can be used selectively. Therefore, pathogenic bacteria can be eliminated from diverse bacterial communities based on their genetic signature; and beneficial bacteria are not harmed.
The findings have been published in the journal Nature Biotechnology. The paper is titled “Sequence-specific antimicrobials using efficiently delivered RNA-guided nucleases.”
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