One of the most dangerous bacteria to humans has a name every-day people will probably find hard to pronounce.
Pseudomonas aeruginosa is a special kind of microorganism, University of Oklahoma professor of biochemistry Helen Zgurskaya said. Its entire life has been spent in harsh conditions, and it has devised ways to resist external threats.
Now on that list: man-made antibiotics, and the bacteria has only been made stronger by them.
“We try to kill them,” Zgurskaya said. “But because it’s seen so much toxins in its environment, when we try to treat it, it becomes even more resistant to antibiotics.”
This bacteria is at the center of research by Zgurskaya and fellow OU professor Valentin Rybenkov, which has landed them a $5.7 million, five-year grant from the National Institutes of Health. It’s a sign of just how concerned the medical community and its global benefactors have become to the threat of drug-resistant bacteria.
But time is ticking on finding an answer.
“There’s a special committee in the United Nations now to address this, because we’re getting into the era where antibiotics are no longer sufficient,” Zgurskaya said. “This is a serious public threat. It’s not just in our clinics. It’s our livestocks, our water, everything. We depend on antibiotics so much, that if they fail, food shortages are expected.”
Rybenkov and Zgurskaya’s research centers around how drug-resistant bacteria keep antibiotics from doing their jobs. In the case of Pseudomonas aeruginosa, the bacterium has a particular defense mechanism.
Antibiotics attack bacteria by getting inside of them and stopping their processes, ultimately killing them. Pseudomonas aeruginosa avoids this by utilizing pumps to expel the antibiotic as soon as it enters.
This prevents enough of the antibiotic from getting inside the bacteria, Zgurskaya said, rendering it useless. The bacteria continues its attacks, which in this case includes infections and syndromes of sepsis.
Pseudomonas aeruginosa invades the already ill, taking advantage of weakened immune systems. Its response to more antibiotics, or a stronger does, was to simply develop more pumps.
So the focus now turns to finding what can’t be pumped out.
“We can figure out what chemicals and compounds are recognized by these pumps, and what are not recognized,” Zgurskaya said. “Once we know this activity, we’ll do new compounds with new properties.”
The research is being done in close association with pharmaceutical companies, Zgurskaya said. As soon as a breakthrough is made, they can then respond my creating new or different antibiotics that respond accordingly.
But even that could still be far down the road.
“We are at the very beginning,” Zgurskaya said. “There is some preliminary data and technical advances, but we’re not there yet on how to solve the problem.”