New antibiotics use sugar to kill superbugs

Researchers examined hundreds of versions of synthetic sugar molecules to find those that will kill bacteria and are nontoxic to human cells. (Credit: Mattie Hagedorn/Flickr)

Scientists have discovered a potential new class of antibiotics inspired by sugar molecules produced by bacteria.

Matt Cooper, director of the University of Queenland’s Centre for Superbug Solutions, says bacteria were less likely to become resistant to an antibiotic based on a modified version of their own sugar. The findings appear in the journal Nature Communications.

“Bacteria have cell walls similar to the walls of a brick house, except instead of mortar the walls are held together by sugar polymers,” explains Cooper.

“But if you add one of our modified sugar molecules, they stop the linking process, destroying the cell wall and killing the bacteria.”

“The cell wall has been a target for antibiotics such as penicillin and vancomycin before, but the difference here is that we are stopping a centrally important part of the cell wall linking process.”

Johannes Zuegg, also from the Centre for Superbug Solutions, says the team examined hundreds of versions of modified sugar molecules made by the biotech company Alchemia to find those that will kill bacteria and are nontoxic to human cells.


“Most molecules screened to become drugs have a flat, planar shape, whereas these molecules are three dimensional,” Zuegg says.

“This means we can build on the sugar core in a variety of ways to make thousands of different combinations in three dimensional space.”

The team included researchers from the University of Warwick, Academia Sinica in Taiwan, and Ghent University in Belgium.

Australian and overseas organizations, including Alchemia, the National Health and Medical Research Council, Bayer Animal Health, and the Wellcome Trust supported the work.

Source: University of Queensland