0852 GMT April 03, 2020
Researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers ran about 6,000 molecules through their artificial intelligence program, searching for those that could kill E. coli, dailymail.co.uk reported.
Of all those, the AI picked out exactly one that appeared most effective against the bacteria and didn't structurally resemble any of the 1,700 FDA-approved compounds included in their library.
When the MIT team tested the newly-identified compound in the lab, its potency was remarkable. The drug killed dozens of types of bacteria, including strains that have proven resistant to all known antibiotics.
It's a promising discovery highly anticipated by public health experts worldwide as the World Health Organization has warned that antibiotic resistance is a leading threat to human survival.
Each year, more than 2.8 million Americans develop antibiotic-resistant infections. Of those struck by them, 35,000 die.
The WHO calls antibiotic resistance 'one of the biggest threats to global health security and development today.'
Antibiotics — beginning with penicillin — were among the most important medical advancements to humanity.
Penicillin alone is estimated to have saved some 200 million lives since its discovery in 1928.
So reliably could antibiotics clear up infections that they became a go-to, presumptive treatment for many symptoms.
Thus began the age of over-prescribing, and it's only gotten worse with time.
Americans took 65 percent more antibiotics in 2015 than they did in 2000. Plus, the drugs are used to treat US livestock and plants.
As bacteria are exposed to antibiotics, the strains vulnerable to the drugs die off and the mutated ones for which these medicines are a poor weapon thrive, allowing the bacteria to become resistant to the drugs.
When an infection is resistant to an antibiotic, the drug is rendered useless against it.
When an infection is resistant to all antibiotics, the patient is nearly guaranteed to die.
Important though antibiotics are to human survival on the whole, they are not a lucrative investment for pharmaceutical companies, so discovery and development of these common drugs has slowed to a crawl.
But the MIT lab's new drug is a bright spot on that otherwise bleak horizon.
The compound, which they've named halicin after 'Hal,' the AI from the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, is impressively effective so far and works differently from most antibiotics.
Researchers tested their experimental drug against C. diff, Acinetobacter baumanii, Pseudomonas and Mycobacterium tuberculosis in petri dishes.
It killed all of the hard-to-treat bacteria, with the exception of Pseudomonas, a notoriously tough lung infection that's particularly fatal to cystic fibrosis sufferers.
They then tested their new discovery in mice infected with A. baumanii, which commonly strikes soldiers in Afghanistan, invading wounds, the urinary tract, lungs or bloodstream.
Even though the strain the researchers used is resistant to all known antibiotics, the mice completely cleared the infection within 24 hours of the application of a halicin ointment.
And because it disrupts cells on the membrane of bacteria that allow them to store energy, the scientists think the pathogens will be far less likely to develop antibiotic resistance.
“When you're dealing with a molecule that likely associates with membrane components, a cell can't necessarily acquire a single mutation or a couple of mutations to change the chemistry of the outer membrane. Mutations like that tend to be far more complex to acquire evolutionarily,” said first author of the study, Dr Jonathan Stokes, an MIT and Broad Institute postdoc.
After the success of their hunt for halicin, the researchers are investigating an additional eight molecules that their AI identified as promising.