AUSTIN (KXAN) — Scientists at the University of Texas at Austin are working to screen hundreds of thousands of potential drugs used to fight infections. They believe this technique could help find new pathways to health in a world where more and more bacteria are resistant to antibiotics.
The researchers have named this new technology SLAY (Surface Localized Antimicrobial Display) in a nod to a lyric in Beyoncé’s song Formation.
“I was trying to think of an acronym to represent the words, but also it was kind of inspired by Beyoncé’s — one of her songs, we were trying to think of something fun and young,” laughed Ashley Tucker, a post doctoral fellow working on this technology.
While the name of their screening method is fun, it’s also designed to get people talking about antibiotic resistance and public health. Tucker knows this work is of serious importance.
“The World Health Organization has put out kind of a banner like, ‘guys we need more of these [antibiotics] and we’re running out and if we run out we can’t easily do surgeries and transplants,'” Tucker explained.
The university also cites a statistic from the WHO that antibiotics have added about 20 years to the average human life span.
There have been no entirely new antibiotics on the market since the 1980s and no new clinically relevant classes of antibiotics discovered since the 1960s, UT researchers explained. This has given bacteria plenty of time to develop resistance to antibiotics and it’s part of the reason why UT researchers wanted to find ways to discover new drugs to protect us.
In order to find new antibiotics, you have to test out a massive number of potential molecules. This UT lab has developed a way to test out hundreds of thousands of peptides in a very short amount of time for a lower cost than previous testing. The researchers told KXAN that previous testing methods could only test about a dozen peptides at a time.
These peptides mimic the effects of antibiotics on cell walls, letting the researchers know which ones can kill bacteria.
“Since this is the first time anybody has generated this type of data set and the first time we’re trying to analyze it, we have been successful in that analysis but we are also wanting to improve it so that future screens we can be even more accurate,” explained Bryan Davies, an assistant professor of Molecular Biosciences at UT Austin who is part of the SLAY technology development.
“We hope that this research will produce lead drugs that will be developed clinically, and just as important is that is that we can enable the community, the larger scientific community to use this process,” Davies added. He explained that they want to encourage others to use the same type of testing so that collectively they can find new drugs that will fight bacteria.
“So while it would be wonderful if we were the ones who found the next new antibiotics, we’re excited to provide a new tool for the community to enable a larger set of researchers to explore this important problem,” he said.
Davies also added that his lab is funded primarily by federal and national research grants.
“Those in turn are funded in large part by our tax dollars, so we do feel a responsibility to try and give back to a nation that’s willing to provide us the opportunity to search for these new ways forward in treating health care,” Davies said.
The WHO actually cites antibiotic resistance as one of the biggest threats to global health, food security and development today.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, in the United States each year at least 2 million people become infected with bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics and and at least 23,000 people die each year as a direct result of these infections.