Saskatoon

Saskatoon synchrotron shines light on drug-resistant superbugs

According to Albert Berghuis, the best way to design new treatments to combat drug-resistant bacteria is to think small.

Researchers use Canadian Light Source to analyze drug-resistant bacteria

Drug resistant bacteria are becoming a serious issue worldwide. (klebsiella-pneumoniae.org)

According to Albert Berghuis, the best way to design new treatments to combat drug-resistant bacteria is to think small.

Chair of the department of biochemistry at McGill University's College of Medicine, Berghuis has been studying drug-resistant superbugs with the help of the Canadian Light Source synchrotron in Saskatoon.

"We were really interested in figuring out what is the difference between a normal bacteria and a superbug," he told CBC Radio's Saskatoon Morning. "We really wanted to drill down to the atoms ... What kind of atoms does a superbug have that normal bugs don't have?"

We always are fighting these bacteria, who always come up with new tricks in time.- Albert Berghuis

The research team studied bacterial enzymes called kinases. Those enzymes can chemically modify an antibiotic to make it ineffective.

"When we saw how these enzymes are providing resistance to so many different molecules, to so many different drugs, that was quite an a-ha moment," he said. "Partly, it's understanding how clever nature can be."

Berghuis's work will now be sent back to the lab, to examine how to get around the kinase problem. That research will likely be used in developing the next generation of antibiotics.

"It's still quite a while away, because you have to test these drugs in people and in animal models," he said. 

The research will be used for macrolide antibiotics, the fourth-largest class of antibiotics in the world.

Resistance is futile

Berghuis said drug-resistant bacteria are becoming a serious issue, and will likely become much more serious in the future. In 30 years, experts believe these superbugs will kill as many people per year as cancer.

He said everyone in the medical system, from doctors to patients, have a responsibility to limit the amount of antibiotics that are used in the system, and lessen the chance of resistance to spread.

"As patients, we have to realize that antibiotics are a precious commodity," he said. "It also means that if we get a prescription from the doctor, we should really follow that prescription. If it says to take that medication for five days, don't stop after three days."

However, even under the best-case scenario, Berghuis believes researchers will be locked in an eternal battle as bacteria continue to adapt to the latest drugs.

"As Star Trek says, 'Resistance is futile,'" Berghuis said. "We always are fighting these bacteria, who always come up with new tricks in time."

With files from CBC Radio's Saskatoon Morning

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