MIT team abuzz over use for wasp venom
Researchers’ antibiotic eyed to treat resistant bacteria
Researchers from MIT have developed a new possible antibiotic from the venom of a South American wasp, saying the antibiotic killed dangerous bacteria in mice, a potentially significant breakthrough as public health officials continue to warn about the need for new antibiotics.
“We think this new antibiotic we generated, inspired by nature, it’s a promising candidate,” said Cesar de la Fuente-Nunez, an author of a paper on the research. “We can synthetically improve the original wasp venom.”
The wasp, native to Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina, has long been known to have venom with antibiotic properties, Fuente-Nunez said, but it has always been toxic to humans. A team of engineers at MIT and Federal University of ABC in Brazil engineered a synthetic version of the venom that is not toxic but remains a possible antibiotic. The wasp venom works by piercing a cell wall, destroying the bacteria.
“The idea here is to take that very well-crafted toxin and turn it into something that can be useful for humans and our society,” Fuente-Nunez said.
Other researchers have said venom from the same wasp could be altered to attack cancer cells.
There has been a push for the development of new antibiotics, including from government agencies. The wasp venom research is funded in part by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency.
Antibiotic-resistant bacteria have increasingly become a public health issue in recent years. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say at least 23,000 people die each year in the U.S. from antibioticresistant bacteria and more than 2 million are infected each year.
“Antibiotic resistance is one of the biggest public health challenges of our time,” the CDC says. “Fighting this threat is a public health priority.”
Daniel A. Solomon, a doctor at Brigham and Women’s Hospital’s Division of Infectious Disease, said most infections can still be treated with standard antibiotics, but resistant bacteria have emerged as a significant threat.
“The fact that these bacteria exist at all and the fact that we come into contact with these bacteria at all, I don’t think you can overstate the importance of that,” Solomon said. “They can make people very ill, very quickly.”
Still, there are many steps between a successful experiment in mice and the launch of a new commercially available drug. As research continues, FuenteNunez said the surprising origin of a possible new antibiotic is not lost on him.
“It’s seems counterintuitive, paradoxical in some ways,” he said. “That’s the beauty of nature, you can take something that may have no use and turn it into something beautiful.”
USEFUL TOXINS: MIT scientist Cesar de la Fuente-Nunez, who is helping to develop antibiotics from wasp venom, sits yesterday.