Grant will allow UC Berkeley researchers to contribute to antibiotics development

Nathaniel Solley/Staff

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The U.S. Defense Threat Reduction Agency has awarded a $13.5 million grant to UC Berkeley researchers to discover antibiotics that will effectively treat soldiers infected by lethal bacteria.

Over the next three and a half years, UC Berkeley associate professor Jamie Cate in the department of molecular and cell biology and campus researcher Jonas Noeske will study and design 3-D models of how the different antibiotics interact with E. coli bacteria’s ribosomes, the organelle that makes a cell’s protein.

Because bacteria quickly adapts to antibiotics, new antibiotics are constantly in demand, Noeske said.

“It is kind of like an arms race,” he said. “It is us against the bacteria.”

UC Berkeley is collaborating on the research with Richard Slayden, an associate professor at Colorado State University and the associate director of the school’s Center for Environmental Medicine, and Anacor Pharmaceutical, a Palo Alto-based company.

The UC Berkeley researchers received their portion of the grant last week after a delay from the U.S. government shutdown and are expected to begin research within the next month.

The team will utilize highly detailed X-ray imaging, using a machine called the Advanced Light Source, to construct the 3-D models, which will be sent to Anacor Pharmaceuticals to help them create effective antibiotics.

Although bacteria used in biological weapons is different from E. coli, the ribosomal structure is similar among all bacteria. This allows the researchers to experiment on E. coli and extrapolate their results to other bacteria, Cate said.

Anacor will use the images and information created by UC Berkeley researchers to modify existing antibiotics and generate new ones that will specifically combat deadly bacteria from biological weapons of mass destruction, such as burkholderia pseudomallei.

That bacteria is capable of killing people within a few days and is difficult to treat, Slayden said. His team at Colorado State University will test the effectiveness of Anacor’s manufactured antibiotics through animal studies.

“Increasing resistance to existing antibiotics has created a critical need for new classes of antibiotics,” said David Perry, Anacor’s CEO, in a press release.

Noeske estimated that the majority of the research will be completed within the first year, but the team will continue to collaborate with Colorado State researchers and Anacor as new antibiotics are manufactured and tested.

The researchers will submit a report of their findings to the agency, after which the agency will determine what to do with the results, according to Ron Lovas, a public affairs specialist for the Defense Threat Reduction Agency.

“These sorts of studies lay the foundation for developing chemotherapy treatment options,” Slayden said. “The immediate goal, though, is treating our men and women who are serving.”

Contact Michelaina Johnson at [email protected].