Superbugs appear not only in science fiction. Last year a bacterial infection killed a Nevada woman because it was resistant to every antibiotic available in the U.S. Although not so long ago they were easily treatable, a number of infections are no longer curable by any antibiotics. Bacteria have figured out how to evade antibiotics that used to kill them.
“New classes of antibiotics are urgently needed, as bacteria such as tuberculosis and MRSA (an antibiotic-resistant staph infection) are becoming resistant to everything we have available now,” said Dr. Katherine Hoffmann, a Cal Lutheran University professor of analytical chemistry. “Without antibiotics, infections could become life-threatening, which is why it’s important to keep developing new drugs.”
Hoffman and Jason Kingsbury, a CLU organic chemistry assistant professor, were recently awarded a $195,000 National Science Foundation grant to train undergraduates in the use of cutting-edge strategies, including isothermal titration calorimetry — in which Hoffmann is a pioneer — to stop bacteria from mushrooming into fatal potency.
Staph infections are common, and many healthy people carry these bacteria around on their skin without getting sick. But when skin is wounded, or when the immune system is weakened, staph bacteria can enter the body. Staph infections can turn deadly if they invade the bloodstream, joints, bones, lungs or heart. Hospitalized patients whose immune systems are weakened by illness or surgery are vulnerable. California hospitals reported 751 cases of MRSA in 2015, a 10 percent decrease since 2011. While the downward trend is hopeful, 10 percent over four years is less reassuring than 80 or 90 percent would be.
“We are doing the basic biochemistry characterization currently, and eventually hope to design a drug that could represent a new class of antibiotics against a range of pathogenic bacteria,” Hoffmann said. “Without antibiotics, infections could become life-threatening, which is why it’s important to keep developing new drugs.”
Anthrax is another virulent bacteria that the grant will be used to research. While there are anthrax vaccines for both humans and animals, the unvaccinated can die from inhaling it, and only certain groups get vaccinated. These include military personnel and those who work with cattle, sheep or deer, including ranchers and veterinarians.
Anthrax occurs naturally in soil and therefore affects animals worldwide. Although it’s rare in the U.S, people can get sick if they contact infected animals or contaminated products. Of concern to Southern California is that it’s somewhat more common in Mexico.
Anthrax outbreaks that killed a small number of unvaccinated cattle have recently occurred in both South Dakota and North Dakota, but they were promptly addressed and have not spread.
Because it’s easy to extract from soil in many parts of the world, anthrax has been used as a bioterrorist weapon. In 2001, powdered anthrax spores were put into envelopes mailed through the U.S. postal system. Twenty-two people, including 12 mail handlers, got anthrax, and five of them died.
Brian Gaudet, a National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center official, said in September that this type of research is “essential to our homeland security and the fight against bioterrorism.”