MRSA and other superbugs: harnessing the antibiotic power of maggots
This research was completed on 31 July 2010
Published on 18 October 2008
A shocking 9% of patients in England’s hospitals develop a microbial infection – that’s 300,000 infections every year.1 So-called hospital ‘superbugs’, such as MRSA, are particularly dangerous, as they are increasingly resistant to antibiotics. Live maggots have remarkable healing powers when applied to wounds – even those infected with superbugs. Researchers are hoping to harness the antimicrobial activity of maggots, by developing a new antibiotic based on maggot secretions.
What's the problem and who does it affect?
Marvellous maggots take on deadly bacteria
So-called ‘superbugs’ present a major threat in our hospitals. Worryingly, more and more people are being infected outside of hospital as well. MRSA was linked to over 1,600 deaths in England and Wales in 2006, C. difficile to even more – over 6,000.2
These bacteria are so deadly because they are becoming increasingly resistant to antibiotics. Without effective antibiotics, infection can quickly lead to serious, life-threatening illnesses, such as pneumonia and blood poisoning (septicaemia).
A proven way to kill drug-resistant bacteria in infected wounds is the age-old method of applying live maggots. Indeed, maggots are even available on prescription.
Maggot therapy works with amazing speed. It’s not uncommon for someone to suffer from infected wounds for 18 months, despite all sorts of conventional treatment. Yet maggots often begin to clear the same infection within just a few days. They can even save people from having limbs amputated.
Despite the success of maggot therapy, it’s often used only as a last resort, partly because many people find it distasteful. What’s more, doctors don’t know exactly how it works, and it cannot be used to treat deeper infections, such as pneumonia and septicaemia.
What is the project trying to achieve?
Developing a new antibiotic from maggot secretions
The way maggots cleanse wounds and promote healing is remarkable. They actually feed on the dead tissue, destroying the superbugs within it. What’s more, their secretions have a protective, antibiotic activity, which helps them survive in the harsh environment within the wound. However, the exact nature of these secretions, and how they work, remain unclear.
Helped by earlier funding from Action Medical Research, the project team has already isolated a substance, called Seraticin®, from maggot secretions. The researchers know that Seraticin® acts against several bacteria, including MRSA and C. difficile. They also have some preliminary information on its structure and composition.
The researchers believe that Seraticin® has the potential to be a new antibiotic. In this project, they hope to work out its exact structure and find a way to make it in the laboratory. They hope to reveal how Seraticin® works, by studying its effects on several different bacteria. They are also checking whether it has any harmful effects on human cells.
What are the researchers' credentials?
|Project Leader||Dr E Dudley PhD|
|Location||School of the Environment and Society, Institute of Life Science and Centre for Biomedical Studies, Swansea University|
|Grant awarded||18 July 2008|
|Start date||1 October 2008|
|End date||31 July 2010|
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Two researchers are sharing the role of Project Leader: Dr Ed Dudley is a biochemist with expertise in using highly-sophisticated techniques to determine the structure of molecules. Dr Yamni Nigam has an extensive research background in how insects, including maggots, protect themselves from infection.
Drs Nigam and Dudley are drawing on the complementary skills and expertise of the other members of this multidisciplinary project team. Professor Norman Ratcliffe is a world expert in the immune systems of insects, with over 30 years’ experience. Professor Russell Newton is a leading authority in biochemistry research and heads a laboratory containing state-of-the-art instruments used to purify compounds and determine their molecular structure. Professor Paul Dyson is a molecular microbiologist with an extensive track record in research into new antibiotics and antibiotic-producing organisms.
Who stands to benefit from this research and how?
Plans to launch a new antibiotic
The researchers hope that Seraticin® will eventually be launched for use as an antibiotic. Their current work – on Seraticin’s® structure, synthesis, activity and safety – is vital to the development process.
The team believes Seraticin® has the potential for widespread use. It might work where existing antibiotics are failing – to tackle the superbugs MRSA and C. difficile.
Hospital-acquired infections cost the NHS up to £1 billion per year in the UK.1 Their incidence reached 300,000 in England in 2006.1 New antibiotics are urgently needed to prevent the suffering and death that are associated with these infections. This need gets ever greater as more bacteria gain resistance to our existing antibiotics.
The first patients to benefit from Seraticin® could be those with existing infected wounds. Clinical trials would reveal whether applying an ointment, containing Seraticin®, 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.
The next step would be to find out whether injections or pills containing Seraticin® could treat deeper, systemic infections caused by bacteria spreading throughout the body.
- BMA Science and Education Department and the Board of Science. Healthcare associated infections. A guide for healthcare professionals. February 2006. ISBN 1-905545-02-9. http://www.bma.org.uk/ap.nsf/AttachmentsByTitle/PDFHealthcareAssocInfect/$FILE/HCAIs.pdf
- Office for National Statistics. Health Statistics Quarterly. No 37. Spring 2008. ISBN 978-0-230-20572-7. http://www.statistics.gov.uk/downloads/theme_health/HSQ37.pdf