The method, which extracts drugs from bacteria that live in dirt, has yielded a powerful new antibiotic, researchers reported in the journal Nature on Wednesday. The new drug, teixobactin, was tested in mice and easily cured severe infections, with no side effects.
Better still, the researchers said, the drug works in a way that makes it very unlikely that bacteria will become resistant to it. And the method developed to produce the drug has the potential to unlock a trove of natural compounds to fight infections and cancer — molecules that were previously beyond scientists’ reach because the microbes that produce them could not be grown in the laboratory.
Teixobactin has not yet been tested in humans, so its safety and effectiveness are not known. Studies in people will not begin for about two years, according to Kim Lewis, the senior author of the article and director of the Antimicrobial Discovery Center at Northeastern University in Boston. Those studies will take several years, so even if the drug passes all the required tests, it still will not be available for five or six years, he said during a telephone news conference on Tuesday. If it is approved, he said, it will probably have to be injected, not taken by mouth.
The new research is based on the premise that everything on earth — plants, soil, people, animals — is teeming with microbes that compete fiercely to survive. Trying to keep one another in check, the microbes secrete biological weapons: antibiotics.
“The way bacteria multiply, if there weren’t natural mechanisms to limit their growth, they would have covered the planet and eaten us all eons ago,” Dr. Schaffner said.
Scientists and drug companies have for decades exploited the microbes’ natural arsenal, often by mining soil samples, and discovered lifesaving antibiotics like penicillin, streptomycin and tetracycline, as well as some powerful chemotherapy drugs for cancer. But disease-causing organisms have become resistant to many existing drugs, and there has been a major obstacle to finding replacements, Dr. Lewis said: About 99 percent of the microbial species in the environment are bacteria that do not grow under usual laboratory conditions.
Dr. Lewis and his colleagues found a way to grow them. The process involves diluting a soil sample — the one that yielded teixobactin came from “a grassy field in Maine” — and placing it on specialized equipment. Then, the secret to success is putting the equipment into a box full of the same soil that the sample came from.
“Essentially, we’re tricking the bacteria,” Dr. Lewis said. Back in their native dirt, they divide and grow into colonies. Once the colonies form, Dr. Lewis said, the bacteria are “domesticated,” and researchers can scoop them up and start growing them in petri dishes in the laboratory.
The research was paid for by the National Institutes of Health and the German government (some co-authors work at the University of Bonn). Northeastern University holds a patent on the method of producing drugs and licensed the patent to a private company, NovoBiotic Pharmaceuticals, in Cambridge, Mass., which owns the rights to any compounds produced. Dr. Lewis is a paid consultant to the company.