A handful of dirt from a field has yielded what may be the first of a new family of antibiotics. Early tests suggest this one has the potential to be especially powerful, providing a new weapon against the growing threat of drug-resistant superbugs.
Scientists at Northeastern University in Boston and a small company called NovoBiotic Pharmaceuticals used a new method to find the compound, which appears to bypass the many different tricks that germs have for getting around the effects of antibiotics.
Tests in mice suggest it works to kill a wide range of bacteria, from staphylococcus to drug-resistant tuberculosis.
They've named it teixobactin. It comes from a soil-dwelling bacteria that usually doesn't thrive in the lab, so it hadn't been developed as a source of antibiotics.
"The compound is highly potent against a broad range of Gram-positive microbes, including methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and vancomycin-resistant enterococci (VRE)," the company said in a statement.
And it came from an ordinary field in Maine. The new device may offer a way for scientists to harvest all sorts of different products from soil bacteria too shy to grow in most labs.
"What most excites me ... is the tantalizing prospect that this discovery is just the tip of the iceberg," said Mark Woolhouse, a professor of infectious disease epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh.
Bacteria develop resistance to drugs quickly. Even before penicillin was introduced in 1943, staphylococcus germs had genes that would have made them resistant to its effects. Just nine years after tetracycline was introduced in 1950, a resistant strain of Shigella evolved. Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) evolved just two years after methicillin hit the market in 1960. The last new antibiotic to be introduced was ceftaroline, in 2010. It took just a year for the first staph germ to evolve that resisted its effects.