Some proteins bind to bacteria, killing them remarkably fast. Understanding how these proteins work could be the first step to create potent antimicrobial drugs to tackle superbugs.

Scientists from the University of Sheffield published a paper last November describing how an enzyme called lysostaphin (pictured) kills S. Aureus remarkably fast – and the secret lies in the binding mechanisms. This research was the first to explain such potency and it could be a stepping stone towards producing a wider range of antimicrobial drugs. Luz Gonzalez-Delgado, a PhD student and first author of this research, explained how protein bonds could impact society.

Lysostaphin

Meeting Luz

The Krebs café, named after Sir Hans Krebs, was packed. The place was almost as loud as Krebs’s research. The Nobel laureate is revered worldwide for his findings developed at the Department of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology, the department in which Luz studies. I met with the PhD candidate at this café to understand her research and her paper published at Nature Chemical Biology.

We had barely started talking before I  sensed a feeling quite common within the world of research: intrigue. The protein starring in the paper, lysostaphin, is extremely good at killing bacteria, but no-one knows why.

“This enzyme was discovered in the sixties and it has been a while now, yet little is known about it. It’s so potent, but its mechanism and how it works are not well understood,” Luz said.

“So, our main goals were to understand how this protein binds to bacteria and which bit of the cell wall it recognizes.”

Impact and (cautious) excitement

If research starts with intrigue, results should bring enlightenment. Even though that is not the case for many research projects, fortunately, Luz’s research has brought straightforward answers. The team finally understood how lysostaphin binds to bacteria and described the binding process in the paper. But would this research solve the problem of antibiotic resistance? Luz had cautious words while relating the discovery to this public health issue. “When it comes to talking about antibiotic resistance there’s a bigger picture – always. When you do research that is so specific you don’t want to fall into maybe selling the wrong idea, because this is obviously one bit of a bigger puzzle when it comes to studying resistant microorganisms.”

Lysostaphin as an antibiotic?

Producing highly potent antibiotics is more than a desire, it’s a need to tackle the massive threat antibiotic resistance poses to public health. The World Health Organization describes that “without urgent action, we are heading for a post-antibiotic era, in which common infections and minor injuries can once again kill. However, even though lysostaphin has a major potential to inspire scientists on designing and engineering new potent drugs, research still needs to be done.

Luz said: “To come up with these new ideas and new strategies to try to face this big problem, you really need to understand the tools you have. At the moment, we are interested in studying how it all works, because, in the long term, it could be useful.”

Molecular biology and biomedical research do not always bring immediate results to the public, but Luz’s research is a humble step towards getting there. Thus, a small step as discovering how proteins bind could have the potential to tackle major public health problems. And, as a famous astronaut would say, small steps for Man could turn into giant leaps for mankind.

Featured image: Luz in her lab. “I was always into this universal thing of ‘everyone can contribute to something on the planet’ so, I was interested in doing research related to antimicrobial resistance, to help to deal with this problem.” Image: Bárbara Pinho.

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