How sugar-cane toxin could help in the fight to find new antibiotics to beat superbugs

  • Watch a report by ITV News Anglia's Rob Setchell

A potent plant toxin with a unique way of killing harmful bacteria has emerged as one of the strongest antibiotic candidates in decades.

Scientists in Norwich say albicidin - a toxin found in sugar cane - can kill off superbugs such as E.coli and salmonella, which are becoming increasingly resistant to modern medicine.

At the John Innes Centre they have been the first to see exactly how it kills harmful bacteria, results which have seen it hailed as the "most exciting antibiotic candidate" in decades.

"Usually we test our hypothesis, or we plan experiments, and they just don't work," said Dr Dmitry Ghilarov, study author at the John Innes Centre.

"They result in nothing. However in this case, we are the first humans to see how the molecule binds to its target - and we know the mechanism.

"That is absolutely rewarding and is worth all the weekends and nights spent in the labs."

Scientists hope the discovery will give them a new weapon to fight superbugs like pneumonia and E.coli Credit: ITV News Anglia

His colleague Prof Tony Maxwell told ITV News Anglia that it was crucial new antibiotics were found.

"What I don't want to see is somebody scratching themselves on a thorn bush in a garden, getting an infection, going to a hospital, they can't be treated and they die.

"That happened in the last century. It should not be happening in the 21st century."

Dr Ghilarov added: “It seems, by the nature of the interaction, albicidin targets a really essential part of the enzyme and it’s hard for bacteria to evolve resistance to that.

“Now that we have a structural understanding, we can look to further exploit this binding pocket and make more modifications to albicidin to improve its efficacy and pharmacological properties.”

The team have already used their observations to make improved versions of the antibiotic.

Tests found these new versions were effective against dangerous infections such as E.coli and salmonella.

“We believe this is one of the most exciting new antibiotic candidates in many years," added Dr Ghilarov.

“To be the first person to see the molecule bound to its target and how it works is a huge privilege, and the best reward one can have as a scientist.”

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