WATCH ABOVE: Researchers at McMaster University have found a fungus in soil they think could help fight antibiotic-resistant bacteria. As Ross Lord reports, the scientists behind the breakthrough had to sift through a lot of dirt before they found success.
It was discovered in the Nova Scotia soil: a fungus that Canadian scientists hope is a secret weapon to fight superbugs that kill thousands of people each year.
The fungus, found in Kejimkujik National Park and known as AMA, is able to disarm a notorious superbug called NDM-1, one of the most dangerous antibiotic-resistant bugs that even the World Health Organization calls a “global public health threat.”
According to Ontario researchers out of McMaster University, AMA targets and blocks the drug-resistant pathogens that make our most potent antibiotics useless.
“This is public enemy No. 1,” Dr. Gerry Wright, lead researcher and McMaster University scientist, said of NDM-1 or New Delhi Metallo-beta-Lactamase-1. NDM-1 is part of a family of proteins that deactivates antibiotics, particularly carbapenems – the last resort drugs doctors have to treat serious infections.
Once NDM-1 surfaced a few years ago, it made carbapenems useless. And since then, the superbug has spread from Asia to the rest of the world.
“It came out of nowhere, it has spread everywhere and has basically killed our last resource of antibiotics, the last pill on the shelf used to treat serious infections,” he said. His latest findings show that we’re not “helpless” to the superbug.
READ MORE: New superbug renders antibiotics powerless
Almost a century ago, Scottish researcher Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin and ushered in a wave of new medications, all derived from bacteria in the soil beneath our feet.
Suddenly, pneumonia, tuberculosis, blood infections — ailments that once killed entire communities at a time — became manageable. Antibiotics were dubbed “wonder drugs”: They revolutionized medical care and extended life expectancy.
But we’re still relying on old innovations: Half of the antibiotics prescribed to sick patients today were discovered in the 1950s, Canadian research suggests.
Wright says there have been virtually no new antibiotics discovered since the 1980s.
“We’re at a very precarious point simply because we don’t have any new drugs coming on board,” Wright told Global News.
But if the drugs aren’t evolving, the bugs are: There’s a growing number of “superbugs” that can’t be treated by the existing antibiotics in our arsenal.
Watch below: Dr. Gerry Wright explains health officials’ battle with the pervasiveness of superbugs.
This is why McMaster’s new research is critical: Wright and his team say that learning more about the properties of this fungus helped them learn how to defuse NDM-1’s immunity to antibiotics.
“Simply put, the molecule knocks out NDM-1 so the antibiotics can do their job,” Wright said. He told Global News it’s akin to playing a “numbers game” – they looked at a library of 30,000 chemist-produced molecules and came up empty-handed. When they returned to the basics – collecting bacteria and fungi in the soil – they found a single promising extract out of 500 samples.
Ultimately, it came down to trial and error in uncovering which molecules disarm superbugs.
NDM-1 relies on zinc for its survival, but scientists have had a hard time isolating it without hurting their patients. This fungus molecule appears to do the job “naturally and harmlessly,” according to a university statement about the new findings.
So far, it’s worked in mice infected with the superbug. Those that received AMA along with antibiotics survived – those that received only one of the two died.
“This is a made-in-Canada solution for a global problem,” Wright said.
The McMaster team collaborated with doctors from the University of British Columbia and Cardiff University in Wales. Their complete findings were published Wednesday afternoon in the journal Nature.
WATCH: McMaster researchers may have made a breakthrough in the fight against superbugs. Sean Mallen reports.
– With files from Julia Wong and Sean Mallen