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A cure to superbugs lives in your eyes

Posting in Healthcare

The cornea contains specialized proteins that ward off infections.

A less than routine eye examination could end up saving countless lives. Scientists from the University of California, Berkeley, believe that they have stumbled upon a new class of antimicrobial drugs by synthesizing proteins that keep bacteria from taking up residence in our cornea.

The findings were published in The Journal of Clinical Investigation on September 24th. The same scientists are listed as coinventors on a patent application that was filed in April, according to the research article. Invention is badly needed in the battle against super bugs. Today's drugs help them to evolve.

With the threat of "superbugs" rising, researchers are seeking novel treatments to fight drug resistant bacteria. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria even spread nearly unabated through the National Institutes of Health (NIH)'s clinical center last year, forcing the staff to resort to extreme measures - like ripping out plumbing.

Bacteria have mutated and become drug resistant after decades of widespread antibiotic use in animals and people. Traditional first line therapies are failing, and there are scant few new antibiotics in the pipeline because pharmaceutical companies have pulled back from creating new drugs due to technical challenges, drug safety concerns, and lack of profits. This is occurring despite dangerous outbreaks of superbugs.

Resistant forms of E. coli that have been spotted in antibiotic-fed, supermarket-sold chicken are now being linked to urinary track infections; overuse of antibiotics for sinuses infections could lead to untreatable super bugs; hospitals everywhere are experiencing outbreaks; once treatable STDs are becoming untreatable; and a 24-year-old in Georgia woman nearly lost her life in a very public battle against flesh-eating bacteria this past spring. Super bugs seem to be everywhere, but one tiny part of the human body remains naturally resistant.

While they can reside everywhere else in the body, bacteria are typically not found in the cornea of the eye due to specialized keratin proteins that are naturally antimicrobial. The UC Berkeley researchers believe that the keratin can be synthesized into inexpensive new drugs that have already proven beneficial in the laboratory with an encouraging potential to develop new treatments. Maybe the drug companies will pay attention.

Some of the aforementioned conditions could become treatable with this new class of drugs, including E. coli and flesh-eating disease. Other applications would benefit the treatment of diarrhea, strep throat, staph infections, and certain types of long infections. Of course, bacteria will always continue to mutate.

If you're interested in the science, here's an excerpt from the report's conclusion:

"Small synthetic analogs of these peptides exert broad-spectrum antimicrobial activity against diverse human pathogens, including P. aeruginosa, E. coli, S. pyogenes, and S. aureus. These peptides are active under physiological conditions and induce bacterial cell wall/membrane permeabilization after binding, which does not require cationic charge or α-helix formation but does require glycine residues," the report says.

"Further studies will be required to determine the mechanistic details of their bactericidal activity, whether other forms of keratin also give rise to KDAMPs, the mechanism(s) by which they are generated in vivo, and their functional significance in the innate defense of mucosal epithelia and epithelial homeostasis. KDAMPs may also be of value as robust, biocompatible, and efficacious therapeutic agents for combating infection."

Any new treatment is welcomed. Modern medicine is running out of silver bullets to treat these superbugs, and the side effects of many new antibiotics are harsh. Taking a new fluoroquinolone class antibiotic mildly injured my Achilles tendon; others have not been as lucky. A fresh start isn't always such a bad idea.

(Image credit: Wikipedia Commons)

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— By on September 26, 2012, 1:12 PM PST

David Worthington

Contributing Editor

David Worthington has written for BetaNews, eWeek, PC World, Technologizer and ZDNet. Formerly, he was a senior editor at SD Times. He holds a business degree from Temple University. He is based in New York. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure