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A soil toxin may be just the helper penicillin needs to overcome bacterial resistance

Neil Price
US Department of Agriculture, Agriculture Research Service
Neil Price

Penicillin could soon get a much-needed boost up in the fight against antibiotic resistance.

Penicillin is a proven drug. Its antibacterial properties were discovered by the Scottish doctor Alexander Fleming in 1928, and a mass production process was invented in Peoria in the 1940s. But many bacteria are now able to evade the medication.

Neil Price is a research chemist at the Peoria Ag Lab.

"Everything is resistant to it. This is a problem. So if we could make them more, soup them up a little bit and overcome the resistance, that would be a very valuable thing to do," Price said.

That's where TunR2 comes in. Derived from the soil toxin tunicamycin, TunR2 is a potent antibiotic in and of itself. But when partnered with penicillin, the hope is that it can effectively soften up the bacteria's defenses enough for penicillin to come in and finish the job.

TunR2 lab tests on cattle infected with Johne's disease didn't cure the ailment, but they didn't kill the cattle, either. This showed that the TunR2 had effectively filtered out the toxic properties of unrefined tunicamycin.

Price said that's a good sign for future research.

"It's all sort of baby steps to get to where you actually want to be. The next step is to combine the drug with different penicillins. But the TunR2 is a very good antibiotic in its own right. It's actually very good," he said.

Price said the next steps are conducting a combination study in cows to see how the two drugs interact with each other. The goal is to refine the combination and reduce the dosages needed for effective treatment.

Bacterial resistance has led to infections that are difficult or impossible to treat, according to the Centers for Disease Control. There's no easy answer to the problem, because bacteria are continually evolving.

"It's a constant war. You're constantly trying to develop new things that will be effective 10 years down the line," said Price.

Still, Price sees a lot of promise in the ability of TunR2 and penicillin to team up and take on tough pathogens, and he believes similar combinations will be vital in the battle against antibiotic resistance.

Tim is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.