Canadian researchers find new compound to potentially fight antibiotic-resistant infections

Two scientists at St. Boniface Hospital in Winnipeg have discovered a compound that they hope will eventually help in the fight against antibiotic-resistant infections.

Antibiotic PEG-2S targets an infection's energy source, ignores healthy gut bacteria

If PEG-2S is approved, it could be effective against drug-resistant infections because it targets a different part of the bacteria compared to traditional antibiotics, said Dr. Grant Pierce. (AFP/Getty Images)

Two scientists at St. Boniface Hospital in Winnipeg have discovered a compound that they hope will eventually help in the fight against antibiotic-resistant infections.

Dr. Grant Pierce and Dr. Pavel Dibrov's research, which was published in the Canadian Journal of Physiology and Pharmacology Thursday, says their newly-developed compound, PEG-2S, works by cutting off the energy source of bacteria — a protein vital to their survival.

"It's important because this protein is not found in the normal cells of your body — lung, heart, wherever," said an excited Pierce. "It's worked beautifully."

While the new compound is lethal to bad bacteria it has the added benefit of bypassing healthy cells, according to tests done in Petri dishes. It has not undergone animal and human trials necessary for approval as a drug.

"It does not have an effect on the normal cells in your body and it doesn't have an effect on the good bacteria that's in your gut," said Pierce. 

The compound's target is not a traditional one for antibiotics.

Most antibiotics today attack one of three targets — the cell wall, protein synthesis or DNA replication within the bacteria, said Pierce. 

"Ours is quite different," he said. 

Drug-resistant gonorrhea culture are shown under a microscope lens. Researchers at St. Boniface Hospital have developed a new drug that may treat gonorrhea and other infections which share a particular protein. (Canadian Press)

Preliminary research shows the effectiveness in Petri dish tests of PEG-2S for treating Chlamydia trachomatis — the sexually-transmitted disease known simply as chlamydia — but the scientists have also tested it successfully on pneumonia, Legionnaires' disease, gingivitis and periodontitis, said Pierce.

Researchers say the compound, if successfully tested and approved, could potentially treat cholera, wound infections, septicemia, and gonorrhea — infections that all use the same sodium transport mechanism or energy source.

Approval could take 10 years

A host of infections that were once easily annihilated by common antibiotics have become resistant to treatment in recent years.

Hundreds of thousands of people die each year around the world from antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections and it's been 30 years since the last new class of antibiotics was discovered.

It's possible that in the not-too-distant future, a skinned knee that becomes infected could be life-threatening, said Pierce.

"Identifying a new target for the antibiotics is extremely important," Pierce said.

PEG-2S is not only a potential weapon against drug-resistant bacteria — it may also take longer for bacteria to build a resistance to it because the drug acts so differently from other antibiotics.

He and Pavel are currently seeking patent approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for PEG-2S. 

It could take five to 10 years, Pierce estimated, before the compound makes it on to pharmacy shelves. However, many drug candidates fail because of toxicity, reduced impact in humans, lack of interest from the pharmaceutical industry or other factors.


Laura Glowacki is a reporter based in Ottawa. Previously, she worked as a reporter in Winnipeg and as an associate producer for CBC's Metro Morning in Toronto. Find her on Twitter @glowackiCBC and reach her by email at