MADISON - In 1928, Alexander Fleming opened the door to treating bacterial infections when he stumbled upon the first known antibiotic in a Penicillium mold growing in a discarded experiment.
Nearly eight decades later, chemist Helen Blackwell and her research team at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have devised a more deliberate method to tackle a newer bacterial conundrum - resistance to commonly used antibiotics. Early tests of their tool, called a "small-molecule macroarray," have already identified four promising new compounds with preliminary antibacterial activity comparable to that of some of the most potent antibiotics currently available.
Their findings are reported in the April 27 issue of the journal Chemistry and Biology.
Recent rapid development of bacterial resistance against antibiotics has brought bacterial infection back into the limelight as a serious concern, Blackwell says. Virulent strains like methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, often known as MRSA (pronounced "mir-sa") and once found only in hospitals, have become more common even as the available arsenal of useful drugs against them dwindles.
"Strains are emerging that are resistant to all known antibiotics," she says. "This is not a problem that's going to go away - and actually it's just going to get worse. There's a sense of urgency."
Such urgency is compounded by the speed at which some strains are capable of developing resistance, she adds. For example, bacteria resistant to one of the newest antibiotics, linezolid, appeared within one year of the drug's approval for use.
Since bacteria can adapt to new drugs so quickly, Blackwell says the best approach is to try to stay several steps ahead of the bugs. "No one agent is going to solve this problem," she says. "We need to continue to develop new molecules all the time."