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Sea Sponge Antidote Could Protect Against Superbugs

February 15, 2009

Researchers said on Friday that a compound from a sea sponge was able to reverse antibiotic resistance in several strains of bacteria, making once-resistant strains succumb to readily available antibiotics, Reuters reported.

Peter Moeller of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Hollings Marine Laboratory in Charleston, South Carolina, said his team was able to resensitize pathogenic bacteria to standard, current-generation antibiotics.

With the rise of deadly superbugs such as methicillin-resistant Staphyloccus aureus (MRSA), drug-resistant bacteria are a growing problem in hospitals around the world. In the United States alone, these infections kill about 19,000 people a year.

Moeller said his team noticed a sponge thriving in what was an otherwise dead coral reef.

He told reporters at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Chicago: “It begged the question how is it surviving when everything else is dying?”

“This opened up a whole new arena for us,” he added.

The sponge was then chopped into smaller and smaller bits to isolate the properties that helped it thrive in hostile marine conditions.

The bits of sponge were soon able to repel bacterial biofilms “” a slimy substance bacteria form to help stick to surfaces.

Moeller said the sponge derivatives actually dispersed existing bacterial biofilms, and even inhibited production of subsequent bacterial biofilms.

“This is a very exciting result when you realize that 65 to 80 percent of all human pathogenic infections are based on biofilms,” he added.

The researchers then tested the substance on some of the toughest pathogens, including MRSA, and found that when they mixed the sponge material in with an antibiotic, they were able to make several types of once-resistant bacteria sensitive to antibiotics.

Moeller said, since the compounds are non-toxic, the team is now working with several unnamed medical device companies to incorporate it into the plastic materials used to make devices like stents used to prop open diseased arteries or in intravenous lines used in critically ill patients.

“The idea is that we could get rid of bacterial infections that are so common to them,” Moeller said.

Moeller said he hopes to see a new class of “helper drugs” that could restore the potency of antibiotics that have lost the war to superbugs.

“Getting it through FDA (U.S. Food and Drug Administration) approval will take awhile,” he said.

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