Doubling down on antibiotic resistance

Combining a last resort antibiotic with an experimental drug punches deadly holes in multi-drug-resistant bacteria.
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A cell of the bacterium Pseudomonas aeruginosa (shown in pink) after it has been damaged by the antibiotic colistin, which damages both the inner and the outer membrane of the cell eventually causing it to lyse (break down). Image credit: Sabnis et al. (CC BY 4.0)

Antibiotics are life-saving medicines, but many bacteria now have the ability to resist their effects. For some infections, all frontline antibiotics are now ineffective. To treat infections caused by these highly resistant bacteria, clinicians must use so-called ‘antibiotics of last resort’. These antibiotics include a drug called colistin, which is moderately effective, but often fails to eradicate the infection. One of the challenges to making colistin more effective is that its mechanism is poorly understood.

Bacteria have two layers of protection against the outside world: an outer cell membrane and an inner cell membrane. To kill them, colistin must punch holes in both. First, it disrupts the outer membrane by interacting with molecules called lipopolysaccharides. But how it disrupts the inner membrane was unclear. Bacteria have evolved several different mechanisms that make them resistant to the effects of colistin. Sabnis et al. reasoned that understanding how these mechanisms protected bacteria could reveal how the antibiotic works to damage the inner cell membrane.

Sabnis et al. examined the effects of colistin on Escherichia coli bacteria with and without resistance to the antibiotic. Exposing these bacteria to colistin revealed that the antibiotic damages both layers of the cell surface in the same way, targeting lipopolysaccharide in the inner membrane as well as the outer membrane.

Next, Sabnis et al. used this new information to make colistin work better. They found that the effects of colistin were magnified when it was combined with the experimental antibiotic murepavadin, which caused lipopolysaccharide to build up at the inner membrane. This allowed colistin to punch more holes through the inner membrane, making colistin more effective at killing bacteria. To find out whether this combination of colistin and murepavadin could work as a clinical treatment, Sabnis et al. tested it on mice with Pseudomonas aeruginosa infections in their lungs. Colistin was much better at killing Pseudomonas aeruginosa and treating infections when combined with murepavadin than it was on its own.

Pseudomonas aeruginosa bacteria can cause infections in the lungs of people with cystic fibrosis. At the moment, patients receive colistin in an inhaled form to treat these infections, but it is not always successful. The second drug used in this study, murepavadin, is about to enter clinical trials as an inhaled treatment for lung infections too. If the trial is successful, it may be possible to use both drugs in combination to treat lung infections in people with cystic fibrosis.