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Published: 29 Jun, 2021

Umeå scientists in US initiative to combat antibiotic resistance

NEWS Researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and Umeå University, Sweden, are awarded a prestigious grant of $ 11 million from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. The aim of the research is to find ways to treat bacterial infections without antibiotics and to study a potential new class of antibiotics. Professor Fredrik Almqvist at Umeå University is partly responsible for the chemistry platform in the project.

Text: Ingrid Söderbergh

Antibiotic resistance in the world has reached a breaking point. It is becoming increasingly difficult to treat bacterial infections because so many bacteria are resistant to all the antibiotics we have. In the United States alone, nearly three million people develop drug-resistant bacterial infections each year, according to a 2019 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Overuse of antibiotics helps to drive the spread of antibiotic resistance.

Collaboration of researchers in the US and Umeå

With approximately SEK 100 million, a broad project is now being financed to address this global problem. The consortium is led by the eminent professor Scott J. Hultgren at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. Louis in the US and the American research groups collaborate with professor Fredrik Almqvist at the Department of Chemistry at Umeå University.

“To begin with, it is absolutely fantastic that the National Institute of Health in the US is making this major investment in this important area! We here in Umeå are of course very proud and humble because we get to be a part of this fantastic project and we hope to contribute to new progress in the fight against the increasingly widespread antibiotic resistance. The grant extends over five years, which gives good foresight and we will be able to develop both existing infrastructure and train new researchers in the field as part of the project” says Fredrik Almqvist.

Research divided into different subprojects

The initiative is divided into different research themes. One theme aims to identify and develop various alternatives to antibiotics for urinary tract infections and other infections caused by drug-resistant bacteria. Research is carried out on how to treat infections with designed chemical molecules that prevent bacteria from attaching, for example to the wall of the bladder. A parallel approach being researched is to disarm disease-causing bacteria without killing them. Bacteria produce long filaments, called pili, which they need to cause disease but not to survive. In principle, the elimination of bacterial pili can turn a dangerous bacterium into a harmless one. The researchers are looking for molecules that can sabotage the machinery in the cell that builds these pili.

The second main track explores the potential for the development of a new type of antibiotic, GmPcides, a new class of molecules developed in Fredrik Almqvist's lab at Umeå University. These are molecules that kill a variety of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in the laboratory when used alone, but they also increase the effectiveness of other antibiotics when used in combination with them. They "boost" each other. One of the research teams will investigate in more detail how GmPcides works and there is a possibility that some antibiotics that risk being put on the shelf due to widespread resistance may be used again.

Design and manufacturing of molecules

Professor Fredrik Almqvist at Umeå University leads the chemistry platform together with Professor James W. Janetka (Washington University in St. Louis) and will design and manufacture the small molecules that are needed and tested in several of the various sub-projects.

“My research group will assist with the design and synthesis of new antibacterial substances for several of the projects. In addition to improving the properties of the molecules in order to find starting points for new drugs, we will also contribute with molecules that are specially developed to sort out the exact mechanism of action, which in turn provides in-depth understanding and opportunities for new future approaches” says molecule maker Fredrik Almqvist.

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