- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 2, 2008

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Think of germs as gangsters. One thug lurking on a corner you might outrun, but a dozen swaggering down the street? Yikes.

Bacteria make their own gangs, clustering quietly in the body until the group is large enough to begin an attack. This is the next frontier in fighting drug-resistant superbugs.

The idea: Don’t just try to kill bacteria. The bugs will always find a way to thwart the next antibiotic.

The new goal is to disable bacteria’s ability to sicken, so scientists can throw superbugs a one-two punch. Attempts to break up germ gangs are leading the race to create these novel anti-infectives — using everything from compounds in pinot noir to some popular bone-building drugs.

“It’s a stealth approach,” said chemist Kim Janda of the Scripps Research Institute, who is developing a vaccine against notorious drug-resistant staph that prevents the bacteria from ganging up.

“We’re trying to find the Achilles’ heel in drug-resistant bacteria,” said Matthew Redinbo of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill — who did find one.

Mr. Redinbo’s team discovered that certain osteoporosis drugs blocked one E. coli germ from spreading antibiotic-resistance genes to another. Interrupting this recruitment of new gangsters confused the drug-resistant bugs enough that they committed suicide, leaving behind only easy-to-treat germs.

All of this research is in early stages, but Dr. Julie Gerberding, chief of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, calls disarming bacteria a long-needed approach.

It is “like lasers going in to destroy certain parts of the bacteria as opposed to a bomb that blows the whole thing up,” she told Congress recently. These “next-generation strategies are not proven yet, but really something that needs a lot more attention and focus.”

Indeed, despite a rise in bacteria that withstand today’s best treatments, few novel antibiotics are under development. Germs have evolved such complex ways to survive antibiotics’ frontal assault that new ones eventually will wear out, too.

Hence the quest to disarm germs. Scientists are trying to disable “virulence factors,” molecules that help germs worm their way into the body, or block germ-emitted toxins.

But much of the new research centers on simply keeping germs from clustering.

“We’re finding new ways to prevent disease without killing the microbial agent … rather, neutralizing it somehow,” said Dr. Hyun Koo, a University of Rochester dentist who is using compounds left over from vineyards’ wine-making to break up gooey bacteria masses known as biofilms.