A groundbreaking new treatment to combat the hospital killer bug MRSA, which is estimated to cause up to 5,000 deaths a year in Britain, is being developed by a University of Sussex scientist.
Philip Parsons, a professor of organic chemistry, has devised a simple "one-pot" method to make a synthetic version of a natural antibiotic, lactonamycin, which could be used to treat infected patients.
He has now received a £280,000 grant from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council towards developing a series of lactonamycin-like substances.
Professor Parsons explains: "The most important thing hospitals can do to fight MRSA is to improve ward cleanliness. But we still need new antibiotics to combat the bug when it arises.
"We know that lactonamycin, a naturally occurring antibiotic, can kill MRSA. But it is has not been available as a drug therapy, partly due to its novelty and complexity. We are looking at a simple way to synthesise the antibiotic and its compounds, which could also be highly effective in the fight against infection."
The search for new antibiotics active against "super bugs" such as MRSA is of paramount importance because of the increasing problems faced by hospitals in treating drug-resistant bacterial infections. The latest Government figures estimate that up to 100,000 people catch an infection in UK hospitals every year, with the elderly and the very young most at risk of complications and death.
Research has shown that lactonamycin, an extract of the bacteria Streptomyces rishiriensis, is active against MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus).
Naturally occurring chemicals, such as lactonamycin, often have complex molecular structures and are difficult to synthesise because the process usually involves many chemical steps. Professor Parsons has discovered a "one-pot" method - known as cascade reaction - during which several reactions take place at once.
"This is a very exciting discovery," adds Professor Parsons. "It will be important not just for producing lactonamycin, but for making other compounds, natural products and drug substances more efficiently."