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McMaster University researchers find glimmer of hope against superbug

The team tested 1,440 drugs with expired patents and found that pentamidine, a drug used to fight parasites, worked.

A team of researchers at McMaster University has found a glimmer of hope in the fight against superbugs thanks to a very old drug.

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A team of researchers at McMaster University has found a glimmer of hope in the fight against superbugs thanks to a very old drug.

Here’s a sentence you never want to hear in the hospital: ‘It’s a superbug, and we’re out of drugs to try.’ Especially after a sick loved one has suffered through round after round of antibiotics, with gruesome side effects but no improvement. Superbugs are bacterial infections impervious to our most powerful medications. And they’re on the rise. But a team of researchers at McMaster University has found a glimmer of hope in the fight against them, thanks to a very old drug.

How did they do it?

By taking a moonshot. Dr. Eric Brown and his team tested 1,440 drugs with expired patents (read: cheap drugs) against three of the gnarliest superbugs, both in a dish in the lab and in living mice. They found one that worked: pentamidine, a drug used since the 1930s to fight parasites.

Who are the bacterial  bad guys?

The treatment crushed two scary superbugs:

Acinetobacter baumannii causes wound infections, UTIs, blood poisoning, meningitis and pneumonia.

Enterobacteria, a large group that includes serratia, is a UTI and wound-infection causing bug that likes to grow in damp, wet places. Unfortunately, that includes medical devices like catheters.

It also showed some promise against Pseudomonas aeruginosa, which, among other things, causes pneumonia in people with cystic fibrosis.

Why did it work?

The three superbugs in this study all belong to a group called gram-negative bacteria, which have a tough outer shell. Because of that shell, few antibiotics work on them to begin with. So when they become antibiotic-resistant, it really spells trouble. The scientists found that pentamidine punches holes in bacteria’s shells, so when it’s given in combination with antibiotics — which normally wouldn’t work — the superbugs didn’t stand a chance.

So is the problem fixed?

Not even close. The drug combination will have side-effects, and it hasn’t been tried in humans yet. And as long as antibiotics continue to be overused and misused, more, new, superbugs will pop up. However, Brown speculated that doctors might start trying pentamidine pretty soon: When you’re dealing with a superbug, there’s not a whole lot to lose.

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