A Broad-spectrum Synthetic Antibiotic that does not Evoke Bacterial Resistance


Background Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) poses a critical threat to public health and disproportionately affects the health and well-being of persons in low-income and middle-income countries. Our aim was to identify synthetic antimicrobials termed conjugated oligoelectrolytes (COEs) that effectively treated AMR infections and whose structures could be readily modified to address current and anticipated patient needs.

Methods Fifteen chemical variants were synthesized that contain specific alterations to the COE modular structure, and each variant was evaluated for broad-spectrum antibacterial activity and for in vitro cytotoxicity in cultured mammalian cells. Antibiotic efficacy was analyzed in murine models of sepsis; in vivo toxicity was evaluated via a blinded study of mouse clinical signs as an outcome of drug treatment.

Findings We identified a compound, COE2-2hexyl, that displayed broad-spectrum antibacterial activity. This compound cured mice infected with clinical bacterial isolates derived from patients with refractory bacteremia and did not evoke bacterial resistance. COE2-2hexyl has specific effects on multiple membrane-associated functions (e.g., septation, motility, ATP synthesis, respiration, membrane permeability to small molecules) that may act together to negate bacterial cell viability and the evolution of drug-resistance. Disruption of these bacterial properties may occur through alteration of critical protein–protein or protein-lipid membrane interfaces—a mechanism of action distinct from many membrane disrupting antimicrobials or detergents that destabilize membranes to induce bacterial cell lysis.

Interpretation The ease of molecular design, synthesis and modular nature of COEs offer many advantages over conventional antimicrobials, making synthesis simple, scalable and affordable. These COE features enable the construction of a spectrum of compounds with the potential for development as a new versatile therapy for an imminent global health crisis.

ICB Affiliated Authors

Douglas M. Heithoff, Scott P. Mahan, Lucien Barnes V, Semen A. Leyn, Cyril X. George, Jaime E. Zlamal, Jakkarin Limwongyut, Guillermo C. Bazan, Jeffrey C. Fried, Lynn N. Fitzgibbons, John K. House, Charles E. Samuel, Andrei L. Osterman, David A. Low, and Michael J. Mahan
Peer-Reviewed Article
The Lancet, eBioMedicine