In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Anders Hakansson of the University at Buffalo reveals how a substance found in breast milk could turn the tide on drug-resistant superbugs.
Anders Hakansson is an assistant professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at the University at Buffalo. His laboratory investigates the pathogenesis of the gram-positive pathogen Streptococcus pneumoniae (pneumococcus), one of the leading causes of morbidity and mortality in children and the elderly worldwide.
Dr. Anders Hakansson – Defeating Superbugs
When scientists discovered penicillin in the 20th century, it opened the door to a new era of fighting disease. Antibiotics that killed bacteria enabled doctors to treat and eradicate infections from food poisoning to pneumonia. Today, however, we are facing new challenges. Some bacteria — including several that can cause lethal infections in humans — have stopped responding to antibiotics. These pathogens, often referred to as ‘superbugs,’ are a major public health concern, not because they are better at causing disease but because of our inability to eradicate them with current drugs.
To address this problem, my research team has been studying a protein complex called HAMLET, which is found in human breast milk. Using HAMLET, we were able to increase bacteria’s sensitivity to antibiotics, forcing superbugs to respond to drugs they were previously able to beat. The two main species of bacteria we have studied are Streptococcus pneumoniae, which causes pneumonia, and MRSA, which is a major cause of hospital-acquired staph infections. In the lab, HAMLET lowered the dose of antibiotics needed to kill bacteria by as much as a factor of eight — sometimes more. We also showed that bacteria have a very hard time developing resistance to HAMLET’s sensitizing effect.
I have long been interested in the protective effects of breast-feeding; so seeing HAMLET perform so well is very exciting. Since HAMLET occurs naturally in human milk, the risk of toxic side effects is low. To continue our research, I started a company with my wife, Hazeline, a fellow scientist. Using agents such as HAMLET that do not in themselves kill the bacteria but act to sensitize them to current antibiotics is a very attractive strategy, as such agents can be widely used in combination therapy. If HAMLET works in humans, it could extend the life of our current arsenal of antibiotics.