New Technologies Harness Genetics in Superbug Fight

Researchers are relying on genetics to develop new approaches for combating drug-resistant bacteria.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) engineers have developed a novel gene-editing system that can selectively kill drug-resistant bacteria strains, potentially paving the way for new therapies that combat superbugs.

Led by Timothy Lu, MD, PhD, an associate professor of biological engineering, electrical engineering, and computer science at MIT, the researchers developed the tool while studying the bacterial immune system and published their findings in the September 21, 2014, issue of Nature Biotechnology.

After designing RNA guide strands that targeted NDM-1, an enzyme that allows bacteria to resist the broad class of beta-lactam antibiotics, the investigators were able to kill more than 99% of bacteria carrying that enzyme, while the antibiotics did not induce any significant killing. The researchers’ genome-editing system showed similarly favorable results when it targeted SHV-18, a genetic mutation that makes bacteria resistant to quinolone antibiotics.

An earlier report that appeared in the August 11, 2014, edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences outlined a different approach to thwarting antibiotic resistance that allows scientists to rapidly and systemically search for genetic combinations that make bacteria more susceptible to antibiotics.

“This is a pretty crucial moment when there are fewer antibiotics available, but more and more antibiotic resistance evolving,” Dr. Lu said in a press release. “We’ve been interested in finding new ways to combat antibiotic resistance, and these papers offer 2 different strategies for doing that.”

Dr. Lu added that scientists could attempt to design new therapies that mimic how gene combinations that enhance the killing of target bacteria once they understand how those genes influence antibiotic resistance.