December 1, 2023

The hope is drugs that curb a superbug’s virulence without wiping out good bacteria in the process

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Scientists at SFU are advancing the fight against superbugs by using computational analysis to examine thousands of bacterial genomes and identify targets for new drugs that can fight bacteria that have become resistant to antibiotics.

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Patrick Taylor, a post-doctoral fellow at SFU, was part of the team, whose paper on the work was published recently in e-bioMedicine, in The Lancet’s Discovery Science.

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“What we are trying to demonstrate is that we can use computational approaches and data to our advantage to help us discover new targets for drug discovery. This is about looking at the genes that bacteria have, and picking the genes that we want to attack. With computational power we can do that,” said Taylor.

The team analyzed massive amounts of publicly available data on genomes that have already been sequenced, to look at which genes associated with different disease-causing bacteria likely make those bacteria pathogenic — that is make people sick — with an eye to developing targeted therapies.

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Dr. Fiona Brinkman, an SFU professor who is studying gene therapies for antibiotic resistant bacteria, in Coquitlam.
Dr. Fiona Brinkman, an SFU professor who is studying gene therapies for antibiotic resistant bacteria, in Coquitlam. Photo by NICK PROCAYLO /00100582A

Dr. Fiona Brinkman, the study’s co-lead along with Dr. Amy Lee, said, “The goal is to really target the true cause of disease, which are the disease-causing genes within the bacteria. We are going after the source of the problem — by directly targeting these disease-causing genes we can stop the disease, without impacting the body’s good bacteria.”

The World Health Organization is prioritizing the fight against antimicrobial resistance, something that develops when bacteria finds ways to evade the antibiotics used to treat infections.

“Antibiotics (can) unbiasedly attack,” said Taylor. “They go after all bacteria in your body, and attack pathogen and non-pathogen alike.”

The team analyzed data of bacterial genomes, to detect genes that might be good targets for antivirulent drugs — drugs that wouldn’t necessarily wipe out the bacteria, but would curb its virulence.

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“The idea is to develop another complementary treatment that could lead to less drug resistance. Bacteria can easily develop resistance to antibiotics. With anti-virulent approaches, you aren’t actually killing the bacteria, but essentially disarming it by targeting the disease-causing genes that we have identified,” said Brinkman.

The benefits of anti-virulent therapeutics is that they would target the disease-cause genes without harming the good bacteria. “Overuse of antibiotics can cause real health impacts for people. This will hopefully enable us to be able to treat infectious diseases more effectively without impacting the good bacteria,” said Brinkman.

The impacts could benefit the environment as well.

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“It’s not just people in our community getting sick — we are very much intertwined with our environment. Many industries are heavily reliant on antibiotics, and are highly susceptible to disease. Antibiotic resistance doesn’t stop in our homes and hospitals, it’s a big problem for agriculture, for aquaculture and for the environment at large,” said Taylor.

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