In pursuit of penicillin version 2.0

It is amazing which spare parts are available to us when our bodies start to fail: cardiac valves, catheters, glass eyes, artificial knees and hips, just to mention a few. However, these spare parts may also be challenging for our bodies, because the artificial surface is a haven for bacteria which clump together in several layers. This is also referred to as biofilm.

Usually, a shot of antibiotics is enough to eliminate a bacterial infection, but biofilm is a different and tougher opponent.

Biofilm may be compared to a bacterial fortress. Only the outermost bacteria will be susceptible to antibiotics or the body’s immune system. The outermost bacteria literally form a shield which protects the other bacteria from the attacks,” says Thomas Bjarnsholt, Associate Professor at the Panum Institute at the University of Copenhagen, who has just received a Lundbeck Foundation Fellowship of DKK 10 million for his research.

About half of all patients with implants suffer from chronic infections in the form of biofilm. For some, the infection will be so severe that they will have to have their artificial knee or hip replaced. Chronic infections such as tuberculosis and pneumonia in patients with cystic fibrosis are also caused by bacteria clumping together into biofilm.

Can this bacterial fortress be dissolved?
Finding a way to dissolve the biofilm would be a solution for the bacteria to regain their susceptibility to antibiotics and the body’s immune system. For this reason, Thomas Bjarnsholt and his research group of nine scientists will, among other things, examine how the bacteria clump together.

“We would like to know whether the clumping ability of bacteria is passive or active. Do they have a form of Velcro on the surface, binding them passively together, or does it require a special signal for them to aggregate,” says Thomas Bjarnsholt.

If the group succeeds in finding the bacterial equivalent of Velcro or the molecular signal making the bacteria clump together, this could pave the way for new and effective treatments for chronic infections.

“If we can prevent the bacteria’s Velcro from binding or neutralise the signal triggering bacterial clumping, the bacteria will not be able to hide behind other bacteria. And then, a shot of antibiotics will hopefully kill them, or the body’s immune system will do the job on its own,” says Thomas Bjarnsholt.

The successor to penicillin?
Penicillin was discovered by accident on 28 September 1928 by the Scottish bacteriologist Alexander Fleming. Penicillin and other types of antibiotics are effective against infections where the bacteria are free and not bound to other bacteria in the form of biofilm. 84 years after Alexander Fleming’s discovery, there is still no effective treatment for chronic infections.

Time will tell whether Thomas Bjarnsholt’s research will result in penicillin version 2.0 and save the lives of many people. Today, chronic infections kill more people in the US than cancer and AIDS together.

Did you know:

That although the ability of bacteria to clump together still presents a medical challenge, the biofilm phenomenon was discovered more than 400 years ago by the Dutch scientist Antonie Philips van Leeuwenhoek, who studied plaque on teeth using a primitive microscope. He called the biofilm “animalcules” and found out that if he separated the animals, he could kill them with wine vinegar.

For further information:

Thomas Bjarnsholt, Associate Professor, Department of International Health, Immunology and Microbiology, the Panum Institute, tel. +45 20 65 98 88 or email: tbjarnsholt@sund.ku.dk


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