Superbug structure deciphered
London - Scientists have deciphered the structure of NDM-1, a vicious form of bacteria resistant to even the most powerful class of antibiotics, and built a model to help drug researchers in the hunt for more effective medicines.
In a study published on Tuesday, researchers from the Medical Research Council's (MRC) research complex at Harwell, central England, said the discovery of the structure of NDM-1 - or New Delhi metallo-beta-lactamase 1 - was a crucial step in understanding how it worked and finding new ways to fight it.
NDM-1 makes bacteria resistant to almost all antibiotics, including the most powerful class, carbapenems. It emerged in India more than three years ago and has spread across the world.
The enzyme has the ability to break up, or hydrolyse, an antibiotic and make it ineffective. It has been found in a wide variety of bugs, including familiar pathogens such as Escherichia coli, or E coli.
"NDM-1 is a serious threat to human health. The enzyme it carries is able to degrade many forms of antibiotic and render them useless," Simon Phillips, director of the research complex, said in his study.
"In addition, the gene for NDM-1 can be passed between different bacteria so can spread rapidly in the population and generate drug resistance in different diseases."
His findings were published in the online journal Acta Crystallographica Section F: Structural Biology and Crystallisation Communications.
In recent years, there has been growing concern that the usefulness of antibiotics could be coming to an end as the bacteria that cause disease become increasingly resistant to these drugs.
More than 25 000 people in the EU die every year from bacterial infections able to outsmart even the newest and most powerful antibiotics.
No new drugs are on the horizon to tackle NDM-1 for at least five or six years, and some scientists are concerned that only a few major drug companies, such as Pfizer , Merck , GlaxoSmithKline and AstraZeneca , have strong antibiotic drug development programmes.
"Identifying the structure of NDM-1 is a crucial step toward ensuring drug development is based on a sound understanding of the mechanisms of bacterial resistance to antibiotics," said Sharon Peacock, a member of MRC's infections and immunity board.