A drink containing probiotics – live bacteria and yeasts found in fermented foods such as yoghurt and sauerkraut - could become a promising new weapon in the battle against antibiotic-resistant bacteria, scientists at the University of Birmingham have found.

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The drink contained specially genetically engineered probiotics dubbed pCURE and works by targeting small DNA molecules, called plasmids, that are found inside bacterial cells. These molecules frequently carry genes that give rise to antibacterial resistance in bacteria. They replicate independently, and spread between different bacteria, carrying the resistance genes with them as they go.

By preventing the target plasmids from replicating, the probiotics are able to prevent the resistance genes from being available to the bacteria, effectively making them susceptible to antibiotics again.

Read more about antibiotic resistance:

“We were able to show that if you can stop the plasmid from replicating, then most of the bacteria lose the plasmid as the bacteria grow and divide,” said lead researcher Prof Christopher Thomas. “This means that infections that might otherwise be hard to control, even with the most powerful antibiotics available, are more likely to be treatable with standard antibiotics.”

The team is now seeking funding for a clinical trial for the drink which has potential to work against many resistant bacteria commonly found in the human gut including E. coli, Salmonella and Klebsiella pneumoniae.

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"This is a promising start. We aim to make modifications to further improve the efficacy of our pCURE plasmids before moving towards a first clinical trial,” said Prof Thomas. “Antibiotic resistance is one of the biggest medical challenges of our time. We need to be tackling this on a number of different fronts including by reducing our use of antibiotics and searching for new, more effective drugs. Our approach, which tackles one of the causes of antimicrobial resistance at a genetic level, could be an important new weapon in this battle.”

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Reader Q&A: Does eating blue cheese contribute to antibiotic resistance?

Asked by: geek_kid, via Twitter

Discovered by Alexander Fleming in 1928, the antibiotic properties of penicillin, derived from a species of Penicillium fungus, are still widely used today, though many bacteria have become resistant to the drug over time.

Antibiotic resistance occurs when bacteria are regularly exposed to doses of antibiotic that are not quite strong enough to kill all the bacteria. In these situations, the antibiotics only kill off the weakest bacteria, which leaves the slightly stronger ones to multiply and spread their more resistant genes.

Blue cheese does contain cultures of Penicillium mould. You might therefore think that eating too much blue cheese could have a similar effect to antibiotic resistance, by overexposing the bacteria in your body to Penicillium.

However, the strains of Penicillium that are used in cheesemaking are different to the ones in the drug, and don’t have any significant antibiotic properties to begin with. Besides, they are destroyed by your stomach acid anyway.

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Authors

Jason Goodyer
Jason GoodyerCommissioning editor, BBC Science Focus

Jason is the commissioning editor for BBC Science Focus. He holds an MSc in physics and was named Section Editor of the Year by the British Society of Magazine Editors in 2019. He has been reporting on science and technology for more than a decade. During this time, he's walked the tunnels of the Large Hadron Collider, watched Stephen Hawking deliver his Reith Lecture on Black Holes and reported on everything from simulation universes to dancing cockatoos. He looks after the magazine’s and website’s news sections and makes regular appearances on the Instant Genius Podcast.

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