Pharmaceutical company Merck has announced that it may be on the cusp of a major breakthrough in fighting deadly bacteria like E. coli: starving them to death from the inside.

To understand how the new drug works, you have to know something about how clever bacteria are. When hungry bacteria can't find all the vitamins they need to eat to survive, they can basically will those vitamins into being by synthesizing them. A segment of the RNA called a "riboswitch" oversees that process.

The team of researchers who made the discovery have found a molecule that flips that riboswitch, and shuts down the bacteria's ability to make its own riboflavin (vitamin B2), which is critical to its survival. The bacteria then essentially starves to death. They call this sneaky bacteria-killing molecule "ribocil," and it appears to be powerful enough to kill all or most bacteria in a host. 

But here's the catch: Bacteria are pretty smart, and good at picking out traitors in their midst. In order to sneak the ribocil in unnoticed, researchers had to use weakened samples of the bacteria. They aren't sure yet if a way can be developed to fool healthy bacteria into looking the other way while ribocil Trojan-horses its way in and throws the switch to turn off those sweet vitamin-makers.

This finding is especially unusual because antibiotic researchers screen thousands of chemicals at a time to find new treatments, and the ones that work are almost always proteins. But ribocil is not a protein, but instead a drug that targets noncoding RNA. That opens up a whole new area of study as scientists use this new avenue to search for effective antibiotics.

The researchers say they will continue to search for ways to use the drug and make it most effective, especially in light of the superbug crisis

The findings are covered in the science journal, Nature.

Via: Phys Org

Photo: NIAID | Flickr

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