Modernising maggots – new drugs for superbugs | Children's Charity

Modernising maggots – new drugs for superbugs

This research was completed on 31 January 2008

Published on 7 October 2005

With many bacteria becoming resistant to antibiotics, doctors have revived the ancient therapy of using maggots to heal chronic wounds. Researchers hope to isolate the active components from maggot secretions to create new drugs, which may have activity against dangerous antibiotic-resistant bacteria such as MRSA.

What's the problem and who does it affect?

As deadly bacteria develop resistance to drugs...

For many years, antibiotics were all powerful in the battle against bacterial disease. But the bacteria’s defences are tightening - they are becoming resistant to our drugs.

Rapid rises in the rates of MRSA, a so-called superbug, and antibiotic-resistant tuberculosis (TB) present major health threats. In 2002, at least 800 people died from MRSA in the UK, compared with just 51 in 1993.

...maggots launch the fight back

An effective way to kill drug-resistant bacteria in infected wounds is the age-old method of applying live maggots. Indeed, maggots recently became available on prescription.

Maggot therapy works with amazing speed. It’s not uncommon for someone to suffer from chronic infected wounds for 18 months, despite all sorts of conventional treatment. In contrast, maggots often begin to clear infection in just a few days. They’ve even been known to save people from having limbs amputated.

Despite the success of maggot therapy, it’s normally used only as a last resort. Many people find it distasteful – they don’t like the thought of maggots wriggling around on their skin. What’s more, doctors still don’t know exactly how maggot therapy works.

What is the project trying to achieve?

Towards new antibiotics based on maggot secretions

The research team plans to understand the antibacterial mechanisms behind maggot therapy, which could eventually lead to the creation of new drugs. Researchers hope to achieve the following:

  • Test which bacteria, and fungi, maggot secretions can kill. This will show which diseases could be treated.
  • Isolate and purify the antibacterial molecules, which kill bacteria, from maggot secretions. Earlier studies suggest there are at least two.
  • Determine the structure of purified molecules, find a way to synthesise them, and study how they work.

Throughout their investigations, the researchers will place emphasis on investigating ways to combat MRSA.

What are the researchers' credentials?

Project LeaderProfessor N A Ratcliffe
Project team
  • Professor R P Newton, PhD, DSc, FRCS, FIAP
  • Dr Y Nigam, PhD
  • Dr S Thomas, F.Pharm.S, M.I.Biol, C.Biol
LocationSchool of Biological Science and School of Health Science at University of Wales, Swansea and Biosurgical Research Unit, Princess of Wales Hospital, Bridgend
Other locations
  • School of Health Science, University of Wales Swansea
  • School of Biological Sciences, University of Wales Swansea
  • Biomolecular Analysis Mass Spectrometry Facility, University of Wales Swansea
  • Biosurgical Research Unit, Princess of Wales Hospital, Bridgend
Duration2 years
Grant awarded7 July 2005
Start date10 January 2006
End date31 January 2008
Grant amount£132,827.00
Grant codeAP1010

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The researchers are experts in their field, bringing complementary skills to the team.

Professor Norman Ratcliffe is a leading academic, with over 30 years’ experience, known world-wide for his expertise in the immune systems of insects.

Dr Yamni Nigam, a lecturer and researcher, had the original idea of investigating the role of maggot secretions in the healing of infected wounds. She’s been researching molecules from insects since 1988.

Dr Steve Thomas has a large breeding unit for supplying sterile maggots throughout Europe and heads a company called Zoobiotic for this purpose.

Professor Russell Newton has 34 years of experience in Biochemistry research and heads a new laboratory, the Biomolecular Analysis Mass Spectrometry Facility (BAMS), which contains state-of-the-art instruments used to purify compounds and determine their molecular structure.

Who stands to benefit from this research and how?

Towards new antibiotics instead of maggots

The research team hopes to discover the basis of the antibacterial activity in maggot secretions. If they succeed, the next step would be to create new antibiotics based on that antibacterial activity. Such antibiotics could have potential for widespread use, and may even work against antibiotic-resistant superbugs, such as MRSA.

Potential benefits to patients are clear. In the future, cost benefits to the NHS may also be significant.

The first patients to benefit would probably be those with infected wounds. Clinical trials would reveal whether applying the new antibiotics directly to the wound clears the infection. Previous experience with live maggots, which cause no known adverse reactions, suggests such a medicine would be safe.

If extensive clinical trials show the new antibiotics are effective and safe in treating infected wounds, the next step would be to find out whether they can treat deeper, systemic infections caused by bacteria spreading throughout the body.

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