Irish researchers create new molecule to tackle antimicrobial resistance

20 Nov 2023

From left: Dr Rob Elmes and Luke Brennan. Image: Maynooth University

Published in the journal Chem earlier this month, the study demonstrated for the first time the use of table salt to cause cell death in bacteria.

Researchers at Maynooth University were part of an international study that created a new molecule to kill bacteria that have developed antimicrobial resistance (AMR).

Supported by the Science Foundation Ireland Research Centre for Pharmaceuticals and the Irish Research Council, the research was based on the principles of supramolecular chemistry, an area that explores interactions between molecules.

In the study, published in Chem recently, the team was for the first time able to demonstrate that an influx of salt, or sodium and chloride ions, into the bacteria can cause a series of biochemical events that lead to bacterial cell death.

This is true even in strains that are resistant to currently available antibiotics, such as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus.

“We are discovering new molecules and looking at how they bind to anions, which are negatively charged chemicals that are extremely important in the context of the biochemistry of life,” explained lead researcher Luke Brennan of Maynooth University.

“We are laying the fundamental foundations that could prove useful in combatting various diseases from cancer to cystic fibrosis.”

The research coincides with World AMR Awareness Week, a global campaign run by the World Health Organization that aims to raise awareness and understanding of antimicrobial resistance in the hope of reducing the emergence and spread of drug-resistant infections.

“This work shows how using our approach, a sort of ‘Trojan horse’ that causes an influx of salt into cells, we can effectively kill resistant bacteria in a way that counteracts known methods of bacterial resistance,” added co-author Dr Rob Elmes of Maynooth University.

“These synthetic molecules bind to chloride ions and wrap it up in a ‘fatty blanket’ that allows it to easily dissolve in the bacteria’s membranes, bringing the ions along for the ride and disrupting the normal ionic balance.

“The work is a great example of foundation knowledge in chemistry fundamentals impacting on unmet needs in human health research.”

Earlier this year, a researcher Dr Stephen Cochrane of Queen’s University Belfast bagged €1.5m in funding for a project that aims to discover and develop new antibiotics that can kill drug-resistant ‘superbugs’.

Months later, a global team of scientists led by Prof Martin Caffrey of Trinity College Dublin created a molecular blueprint of a key enzyme found in bacteria that may help chemists create new drugs that can suppress disease-causing bacteria.

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Vish Gain is a journalist with Silicon Republic