Beavers vs. the Super Bugs: 'Molecular medicine is the way of the future'

      CORVALLIS, Ore. - For the past 12 years, the professor of Microbiology at Oregon State University has been trying to solve a riddle: How can you stop a pathogen that's resistant to antibiotics?

      Bruce Geller thinks he may now have the answer.

      Geller's work focuses on Acinetobacter, a bacterium known as a 'superbug' because of its ability to pretty much laugh in the face of current antibiotics.

      But Geller believes its days are numbered.

      "Acinetobacter became an issue during the first Gulf War," Geller said.
      "Soldiers started to become infected by Acinetobacter and the strains they were infected with were now highly antibiotic resistant, so the traditional and FDA approved antibiotics were ineffective."

      The bacterium is most dangerous for people with weakened immune systems, like soldiers who are recovering from battle wounds.

      It is an opportunistic bug, meaning it can cause everything from infections to pneumonia, some especially dangerous complications for an already weakened body.

      Another troublesome aspect of the bug: Geller says it can live for months on a dry surface, like a door handle or counter top.

      The superbug is especially prevalent in hospitals, where it has a wide range of immune-compromised victims to choose from.
      This is where Geller's work comes in.

      He's spent the last 12 years perfecting a PPMO, which stands for peptide-conjugated phosphorodiamidate morpholino oligomer.

      Basically, the PPMO mimics DNA structures, but it has a specially altered backbone.

      When the bacteria sees the PPMO, it thinks it is DNA, so it integrates it into its genome.

      That basically prevents the bug from making proteins, stopping it in its tracks.

      After 12 years of research and lab work, Geller, along with researchers at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and Sarepta, Inc, have some positive results.

      "We showed that, in an animal model, we got 100 percent survival of the infected mice that were treated with the PPMO, and we had 100 percent death in animals that were treated with saline," Geller said.

      Geller said the research doesn't end with Acinetobacter.

      Because the PPMO works with DNA, it can be made to fight any type of superbug that has its DNA sequenced.

      "It's very simple for the chemist to go back and make simple changes so that we can go back and redirect the PPMO to other bacterial pathogens," says Geller.

      Geller says that the genetic makeup of more than 2,000 pathogens is known.

      Margo Kaller, a graduate research assistant working on the project, says the new type of antibiotic offers a wealth of possibilities for fighting superbugs.

      "The flexibility of what we're doing and how it can be easily customized to whatever gene means that it can be used in all sorts of applications," Keller says.

      "The hope," says Geller, "is that this is a way forward to effectively deal with the crisis that's being caused by the antibiotic resistant superbugs."

      Geller smiles as he adds: "It's a new way to fight back."