UCC researchers discover weapon to fight antibiotic resistance

Team applies to patent discovery that allows antibiotics disrupt ‘biofilm’ protection

Prof Fergal O’Gara, director of the Biomerit Research Centre at University College Cork.

Prof Fergal O’Gara, director of the Biomerit Research Centre at University College Cork.

 

A research team in Cork has come up with a way to break down the antibiotic resistance shown by some infections. It shows such promise that the scientists at the Biomerit Research Centre at University College Cork have already applied to patent the discovery and may have a company up and running within two years.

“This is heading for commercialisation,” says Prof Fergal O’Gara, director of Biomerit. “We are talking to Enterprise Ireland’s translational team and hope to benefit job creation in Ireland.”

The discovery is timely because of the growing antibiotic resistance seen in many of our most common infectious bacteria. It could prolong the lifespan of our main antibiotics and certainly would be of great benefit to patients, says Prof O’Gara, who is also director of the West Australian Human Microbiome Collaborating Centre at Curtin University in Perth.

Biofilms

The new treatment works by countering the main way bacteria protect themselves against antibiotics. Once an infection sets in, the bacteria begin to form “biofilms”, an accumulation of bacteria that causes a protective film to form over them. The bacteria behind the film are susceptible to any administered antibiotic but the drug can’t reach them because of the film, Prof O’Gara says.

“It has become a very important global issue in healthcare. How are we going to protect society from invading organisms? Biofilms are also a breeding ground for the emergence of antibiotic resistant strains,” he says. Bacteria readily “share” genes and some of these impart antibiotic resistance. This sharing can readily occur under the protection of a biofilm.

The realisation there was a problem dawned some years ago, he explains. The companies developing the new antibiotics worked on the assumption that bacteria causing an infection were all “free living cells”.

“With new imaging technology and biotechnology about 10 years ago it became clear that when microbes infected the body the main configuration was not free living but the creation of a biofilm,” he says.

Until then the approach was to come up with antibiotics that could penetrate the biofilm. “Unfortunately when those anti-infectives were tested they were not as effective as anticipated because the biofilm allowed [the bacteria] to survive.”

Five years ago he and colleagues Dr Jerry Reen, a microbiologist, and Dr Gerry McGlacken, a chemist, joined forces and took an alternative multidisciplinary approach. “Instead of trying to stop the growth of a pathogen with existing antimicrobials, the new approach was to try and disrupt the development of the biofilm,” Prof O’Gara says.

An acute infection can become chronic if a biofilm forms, and this process is driven by microbial signalling. “We interfered with the signalling code and have fooled the bacterium, locking it into the free-living, non-biofilm configuration. The critical thing is when you do that and get free living cells, existing antimicrobials become effective.”

They call it a “bioblocker” and moved their discovery into the patenting process in 2015. “This is a natural product from a bacterium,” he says. “We have tested it and it is not cytotoxic, a huge advantage because we can progress development immediately.”

Contact lenses

There is a wide range of areas where control of biofilms is an important issue. “With the translational component the strategy is to take a phased approach,” he says. “We envisage the first significant application is for reducing infection in contact lenses. The lenses are immersed but cannot prevent biofilm formation.”

If biofilms form on lenses they irritate the eye and will not resolve without some intervention. “We have added the mimic to the solution and have tested the effectiveness of that and we know it works,” he says.

The second application is in topical creams that carry the bioblocker. This would be a help to burns patients or those with exposed wounds. It could also be used on the skin adjacent to where medical implants such as surgical drains are fitted or other tubing. “Preventing biofilms would have a very significant impact on recovery in that kind of injury,” he says.

The third application relates to the insertion of implants that will remain in place for some time such as catheters and other medical devices. These are particularly susceptible to biofilm development and helped researchers realise the scale of the problem. This third approach involves incorporating the bioblocker into the device itself as a surface coating that can be applied to stop development of biofilms on implants.

The team has published research papers describing the effectiveness of the bioblocker with dangerous fungal pathogens such as Candida albicans and Aspergillus fumigatus. It also has potential to serve as a “game changer” in clean technology systems for electronic devices where microbial contamination must be avoided, he says.

Prof O’Gara believes that within two years his bioblocker will already be having an impact in the contact lens area. “We are already talking to players in this sector and plan to develop that,” he says.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.