Cure for MRSA Near?

British scientists say they have found a way to destroy deadly hospital superbugs such as MRSA with drugs already on the market. Researchers have discovered that three compounds used to treat other illnesses can also batter down the defences of even the toughest antibiotic-resistant bugs.

It is hoped that the drugs – which are being kept a closely-guarded commercial secret – will be in use on NHS wards within three years. Normally, a new treatment could take almost a decade to pass through the regulatory system. But, because these compounds are already being used on humans and so are known to be safe, the early stages of testing can be bypassed. The breakthrough was hailed as a “tremendous boost” for patients.

Because of the secrecy, the full nature and names of the drugs, which are chemically very similar, are being referred to only by the code name ETS1153. All that is known about them is that they are currently used to treat some types of acute conditions.

However, the team behind the project is so confident of success that they are ready to begin large-scale clinical trials – the last step before full approval. Professor Malcolm Young, who is leading the work, said the discovery was made while testing existing drugs against MRSA on a unique computer model. The practice of putting old therapies to new use, called “repurposing”, is becoming increasingly popular in medical research.

One of the best-known examples is thalidomide, the once notorious anti-morning sickness pill blamed for birth defects which is now used against some cancers. Prof Young said: “We were looking for any compound, old or new, to do a very specific job with MRSA. “Effectively, we got lucky in that we found a compound already doing a job in a completely different area – we already know it’s safe.”

He made the discovery while working with the Newcastle-based company e-Therapeutics. The professor, who is also pro-vice-chancellor of Newcastle University, used his background in mathematics to develop systems to analyse the effects of drugs on superbugs.

He said that, when staff tested the drugs in the laboratory, they were “delighted” with results which proved that even the most resistant strains of MRSA were killed. They also knocked out other dangerous bacteria, such as vancomycin-resistant enterococci and Staphylococcus epidermidis, which are an increasing menace in hospitals, by attacking the proteins that allow the infections to grow.

Prof Young said old-fashioned laboratory methods had so far failed to offer a solution to the superbug crisis.
He added: “These new therapies for MRSA and other dangerous hospital-based infections are a tremendous boost for our new approach”. Dr Roy Drucker, medical director of e-Therapeutics, said: “We’re very encouraged by this medically important success”.

The breakthrough was applauded by Tony Field, chairman of the group MRSA Support, which assists victims of the bug and their families. He said: “This is very good news. Anything which helps in this way is to be welcomed.”

But he added that hospitals and medical staff should not drop their guard. Until the laboratory breakthrough becomes reality, he emphasised that the best way to combat superbugs is through controlling infection. “We want to see a change in hospital cleaning regimes – to do the job properly with disinfectants and not detergents,” he added.

Cases of MRSA and other infections caused by antibiotic-resistant bacteria are rising year on year, with a 24-fold increase in MRSA-linked deaths over the last decade in England and Wales, according to the Office for National Statistics.

Hospital infections, including MRSA, are said to kill about 5,000 patients a year in Britain, although MRSA Support maintains the figure is closer to 20,000. Earlier this month, it emerged that a Government promise made in 2005 to cut MRSA infection rates in half by 2008 will not be kept. Even extending the deadline to 2009 would not be enough, and a leaked government memo appeared to suggest that superbugs were out of control. The memo also revealed that cases of infection of another bug, Clostridium difficile or C. diff, had become “endemic” throughout the health service.

Although an estimated 1,000 of the superbug deaths are blamed on MRSA, it is feared that C. diff could be an even bigger problem – more than 64,000 patients were struck down with it last year.

January 17, 2007
By Mark Blacklock