University of Queensland leads fight against superbugs

By Genevieve Waldie

An antidote to fight antibiotic-resistant superbugs developed at the University of Queensland will be fast-tracked under a $16 million research deal with international group CARB-X (Combating Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria Biopharmaceutical).  

The agreement provides UQ’s IMB (Institute for Molecular Bioscience) with up to $5.6 million to develop the antibiotic, and a further $10.3 million as project milestones are passed. 

Dr Mark Blaskovich, Professor Matt Cooper and Dr Karl Hansford from the IMB are leading the study to develop the antibiotic Octapeptin-X (OPX). The research was prompted by the urgent need for new drugs to counter antibiotic resistance.

Octapeptin-X (OPX) has a novel mechanism of action to target drug-resistant bacteria that evade all current therapies. Antibiotics are only effective against bacteria, not viruses (including COVID-19), and the number of bacterial organisms resistant to current antibiotics, known as superbugs, have increased dramatically in recent years.

“Much of the world’s current focus is rightly on COVID-19, but superbugs remain a serious and constant threat to global human health,” Professor Cooper said.

IMB Centre Director Dr Mark Blaskovich said drug-resistant bacterial infections were on the rise, killing about 700,000 people worldwide annually.

“Commonly these bacteria cause pneumonia, urinary tract and wound infections. Our current antibiotics are increasingly ineffective against them, leaving patients with no alternatives,” Dr Blaskovich says.

Octapeptins were discovered in the late 1970s but were not selected for development at the time, as there was an abundance of new antibiotics with thousands of people working in antibiotic research and development.

“Given the very few researchers left in this field now, and the sparse pipeline for new antibiotics, we’ve used modern drug discovery procedures to re-evaluate its effectiveness against superbugs,” explains Professor Cooper.

The researches predict that the CARB-X funding will enable the development of Octapeptin-X (OPX) as a safe treatment for drug-resistant infections deemed untreatable by these conventional therapies.

“We’ve demonstrated that OPX antibiotics exert a unique killing action distinct from other antibiotics,” affirms Dr Hansford.

UQ Vice-Chancellor and President, Professor Peter Høj, said it was gratifying UQ was the first Australian organisation that CARB-X had chosen to support.  

“We are determined to make a difference to the global antibiotic resistance problem –  another example of fundamental research underway at UQ changing the world and saving lives,” says Professor Høj.

“The drug discovery capabilities of the Centre for Superbug Solutions, teamed with vital support from CARB-X, will equip us to tackle this challenge and improve outcomes for people with drug-resistant infections in the future.”