Outwitting Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria

Release Date:
Alisa Zapp Machalek, NIGMS

In the war between humans and disease-causing bacteria, humans have been losing ground recently. Worldwide misuse of antibiotics is breeding "superbugs" with increasing invulnerability to the drugs. Researchers have traditionally approached the problem of antibiotic resistance by trying to develop new drugs--an expensive, time-consuming process. Meanwhile, the bacteria continue to mutate, eventually evading the effects of any new pharmaceutical.

Now, Nobel laureate and NIGMS grantee Sidney Altman and his colleagues at Yale University are taking an entirely different approach. Instead of developing new drugs, they are forcing bacteria to submit once again to existing antibiotics. Using one of the same genetic methods that spread resistance--plus some biochemical wizardry of their own--the scientists destroyed bacterial genes that confer resistance, rendering previously resistant microbes susceptible to certain drugs. Specifically, they resensitized E. coli bacteria to the common antibiotics chloramphenicol and ampicillin.

Although the technique was successful in the laboratory, major hurdles remain before it can be tested and evaluated in humans. As one indication of the technology's promise, Innovir Laboratories, Inc. of New York City has licensed it and hopes to commercialize it.


Guerrier-Takada C, Salavati R, Altman S. Phenotypic conversion of drug-resistant bacteria to drug sensitivity. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 1997; 94: 8468-72.

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