UW-Madison Researchers Are Making Progress In The Hunt For New Antibiotics

As more infections become resistant to antibiotics, a University of Wisconsin research team’s search for new ways to knock down bad bacteria and fungi has become increasingly urgent.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that over 2 million patients in the U.S. are infected and hospitalized with drug-resistant infections annually.

“Our group sees at least one patient a day in our hospital for which we have no effective therapies,” said Dr. David Andes, the division chief of infectious diseases at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health.

Andes is part of the team of UW researchers who got a five-year $16 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to try and find new antibiotics. They initially set a goal of finding 20 compounds a year that might prove to be useful fighting infection. Just two years in, they’ve found 400 potential antibiotic compounds, which will be tested to see if they’re effective.

The UW study is unique because of where the team is focusing its search. Soil has traditionally been a fertile source of antibiotics, but it’s become a dead end for new disease-fighting compounds. So instead, the team has been combing the U.S. from Alaska to Hawaii, seeking insects and marine life that for microbes that produce antibiotics, Andes said.

“What we’ve identified is a new source of antibiotics, these natural products antibiotics,” said Andes. “We identify microbes that produce these antibiotics that have been selected by evolution —  specifically selected in animal environments to protect the animal in that environment from predatory pathogens.”

The search for new antibiotics is part of a national plan by President Barack Obama to combat antibiotic resistance.