Brno scientists investigate bacteriocins as alternative to antiobiotics

Kateřina Snopková

For years scientists have been warning against the dangers of antibiotic resistance, with increasing numbers of diseases proving impervious to such drugs. One potential solution might be using bacteriocins against bacteria that have developed resistance to antibiotics – a possibility which scientists from Brno’s Masaryk University are currently investigating.

You might not have heard of them, but bacteriocins might just be the thing to save your life in the future – and the answer to the problem of bacterial resistance to antiobiotics that has been worrying bacteriologists for decades.

Bacteriocins are synthesised peptides or proteins that either kill or inhibit the growth of similar or closely related bacterial strains. Bacteria in fact produce these toxins themselves, essentially as weapons to fight competing strains of bacteria.

David Šmajs from the Faculty of Medicine at Masaryk University in Brno says using them in medicine may have some significant advantages:

David Šmajs | Photo: Michal Šafařík,  Czech Radio

"Bacteria that produce bacteriocins create an environment for themselves in which they can grow and suppress the growth of competing bacteria. Since bacteriocins are directed specifically against certain bacteria, their fundamental advantage is that they do not kill those bacteria with a beneficial effect on human health."

Although antiobiotics are so widely used, they have many disadvantages. One of these is precisely the “scattergun” approach described by Šmajs – they kill not only the bacteria we want to target, but also many other types that are actually beneficial and important to human health, such as the bacteria in our guts – potentially leading to other, sometimes long-term health problems down the line.

Bacteriocins, meanwhile, have fewer and less severe side effects compared to antibiotics. If you were to use bacteriocins for a bacterial disease such as tonsillitis, you wouldn’t get side effects such as diarrhoea, for example, which you might have when taking antibiotics.

Kateřina Snopková | Photo: Michal Šafařík,  Czech Radio

But this advantage can also be a disadvantage, explains Šmajs.

"This is especially the case when we do not know the exact type of bacteria that is causing the disease in question. Then we cannot precisely target a specific strain of bacteria, and in this case antibiotics are more suitable."

Therefore, crucially, bacteriocins are not expected to replace antibiotics entirely. But they could provide an alternative option as an increasing number of diseases prove to no longer be treatable with antibiotics. Šmajs describes it as "increasing our arsenal of weapons". Using both together could also significantly reduce the occurrence of so-called “superbugs”, antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Bacteriocins are being studied by scientists all over the world, but the Brno scientists are focusing on those produced by bacteria from Antarctica, where the bacteria have to cope with extreme conditions and are therefore very strong. Kateřina Snopková, from the same institute as David Šmajs:

"When we tested them against multi-resistant strains of bacteria, for example, from patients with cystic fibrosis, it was confirmed that even these tough strains can be killed by bacteriocins."

However, don’t expect to see drugs based on bacteriocins on pharmacy shelves any time soon – the Brno scientists only expect such products to be on the market in ten to twenty years’ time.

Brno scientists investigate bacteriocins as alternative to antiobiotics | Photo: Michal Šafařík,  Czech Radio
Authors: Anna Fodor , Michal Šafařík | Source:
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