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Teixobactin and the hope it represents for fighting antibiotic resistance

Teixobactin and the hope it represents for fighting antibiotic resistance
A diagram of the isolation chip -- or "iChip" -- device that scientists used to discover a new kind of antibiotic compound. (Kim Lewis/Northeastern University)

And then there's teixobactin, a still-experimental drug that may herald a new era of antibiotic discovery. A team of researchers at Northeastern University's Antimicrobial Discovery Center reported last year in the journal Nature that they had discovered a compound in soil unlike any found before.

Teixobactin was highly effective in killing such common bacterial troublemakers as Clostridium difficile, Mycobacterium tuberculosis and Staphylococcus aureus, wrote a team led by Kim Lewis, the center's director. A Nature editorial dubbed it "an irresistible newcomer."

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An estimated 99% of the bacteria that might produce antibiotic compounds live in soil but refuse to grow in laboratory conditions. As a result, a world of antibiotic possibilities has been beyond the reach of researchers. So Lewis and his team created an isolation chip, or iChip, device that "essentially tricks them," he said.

A previously uncultured bacterium, Eleftheria terrae, is able to make teixobactin, a new antibiotic for which there is no detectable resistance.
A previously uncultured bacterium, Eleftheria terrae, is able to make teixobactin, a new antibiotic for which there is no detectable resistance. (William Fowle / Northeastern University)

The researchers took bacterial cells and diluted them in agar. They devised a growing rack that stored large panels of treated bacterial cells and immersed each sample in soil from which the bacteria had originally been drawn. Recognizing the familiar surroundings, the bacteria appeared to ignore the foreign presence of agar and replicated as if they had never been removed from their primordial soup.

Long off limits to scientists, these bacteria — and more importantly, the antibacterial compounds they might produce — can now be explored in the lab.

Lewis said the iChip device was so simple, the government's patent clerk laughed at him when he described it. But it quickly led to teixobactin's discovery, he said, and to 28 additional compounds that look promising.

Follow me on Twitter @LATMelissaHealy and "like" Los Angeles Times Science & Health on Facebook.

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