Irish scientists discover new potential treatment for superbugs

17 Jan 2023

University of Galway PhD student Aaron Nolan and Dr Merve S Zeden from the University of Galway School of Biological and Chemical Sciences. Image: University of Galway

University of Galway research suggests antibiotics become more effective at eliminating superbugs when combined with purines, which are found in our DNA.

Scientists have shared a new method to improve the treatment of superbugs such as MRSA, which are resistant to typical antibiotics.

Superbugs like MRSA are strains of bacteria that have antimicrobial resistance (AMR), making many antibiotics such as penicillin ineffective against them.

These superbugs have been a growing issue in hospitals worldwide, with figures obtained by The Irish Times suggesting thousands of Irish patients tested positive for superbugs in 2021.

Now, research from the University of Galway suggests these superbugs could be more efficiently killed by penicillin-type antibiotics when they are combined with purines, which are chemical compounds found in our DNA.

In a new study published in the scientific journal mBio, the microbiology team combined purines such as guanosine with common antibiotics, which were then exposed to the MRSA superbug.

The study suggests the antibiotics were far more effective at eliminating the bacteria when combined with purines. One of the study leads, Dr Merve S Zeden, said these purines appear to “interfere with signalling systems in the bacterial cell which are required for antibiotic resistance”.

The study was highlighted in a recent American Society for Microbiology podcast, which noted that drugs derived from purines are already used to treat some viral infections and cancers.

“Finding new ways to re-sensitise superbugs to currently licensed antibiotics is a crucial part of efforts to tackle the AMR crisis,” said PhD student Aaron Nolan who was the study’s co-first author. “Our research implicated the potential of purine nucleosides in re-sensitising MRSA to penicillin-type antibiotics”

The research was conducted in collaboration with scientists at Imperial College London and the University of Sheffield. Funding came from the Health Research Board, Science Foundation Ireland and the Irish Research Council.

In 2021, scientists received EU funding to develop a microscope that can study the inner workings of superbugs using photonics, in order to understand exactly how they cause disease.

10 things you need to know direct to your inbox every weekday. Sign up for the Daily Brief, Silicon Republic’s digest of essential sci-tech news.

Leigh Mc Gowran is a journalist with Silicon Republic