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NTU scientists discover way to improve effectiveness of antibiotics

Staff writer |
Scientists at Nanyang Technological University (NTU Singapore) have discovered that antibiotics can continue to be effective if bacteria’s cell-to-cell communication and ability to latch on to each other are disrupted.

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This research breakthrough is a major step forward in tackling the growing concern of antibiotic resistance, opening up new treatment options for doctors to help patients fight against chronic and persistent bacterial infections.

The study, led by Assistant Professor Yang Liang from the Singapore Centre for Environmental Life Sciences (SCELSE) at NTU, found that a community of bacteria, known as biofilm, can put up a strong line of defence to resist antibiotics.

The NTU team has successfully demonstrated how biofilms can be disrupted to let antibiotics continue their good work.

Asst Prof Yang’s team discovered the mechanisms of how bacteria are able to tolerate antibiotics by using a common bacterium Pseudomonas aeruginosa.

The bacteria were allowed to form a wall of biofilm in a microfluidic system. An antibiotic was then introduced. A large portion of the bacterial cells were killed by the antibiotic, leaving only a small fraction of antibiotic-tolerant cells. However, these cells were able to reproduce rapidly and dominate the community.

The scientists then used an FDA-approved drug that disrupts cell-to-cell communication (known as quorum sensing) and ‘velcro’-like cells that can move and “stick” to each other. This drug was added to the antibiotic and together they managed to kill all the bacterial cells.

The same tests were then performed on mice with infected implants. It was found that only mice treated with a combination of anti-biofilm compound and antibiotics had their infections completely eradicated.

This discovery breakthrough was made possible through an interdisciplinary approach, where experts from three different fields – microbiology ecology, systems biology and chemical biology – came together to tackle the problem.

The NTU research team included proteomics expert Assoc Prof Newman Sze Siu Kwan from NTU’s School of Biological Sciences. Proteomics was the key method used to discover chemical signals that bacterial cells in the biofilm use to communicate with each other.

Another researcher in the team is Professor Michael Givskov, a world-leading scientist in the area of biofilm research and bacterial cell-to-cell communication at SCELSE. Together, the team found that traditional methods of isolating the bacteria from the biofilm for observation did not work, as the bacteria behave differently after being isolated from the biofilm.

This study, supported by the Ministry of Education Academic Research Fund, took Asst Prof Yang and his team four years to complete. Moving forward, they will seek more ways to improve efficiency of antibiotics for persistent infections.

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