Developing new antibiotics to overcome multi-drug resistant bacteria – Agata Starosta, Pop Days 2014

I would like to start with a short story from my childhood. When I was eight years old, I was in the hospital for several months fighting a bacterial disease. At the time none of the antibiotics on the market could help. Luckily, the clinical trials of a new antibiotic were going on. I could take part in this, and it helped. That was the moment when my future faith was made : I decided to go into science. My name is Agata Starosta and today I would like to tell you more about my research. Nowadays, access to all means of transportation is greater than ever before, within several hours we can be in a different city, a different country or even a different continent. And so can bacteria. As you may be aware or not, we have bacteria on every surface of our body and every surface we ever touch; all furniture, all places in the underground, everywhere. We can divide bacteria into healthy ones and unhealthy ones, pathogens. The healthy bacteria actually account for 3% of our body mass. They are very important for metabolism, for example when we eat vegetables, they help us to digest cellulose.

They prevent allergies and they are very important for immunity; so if, as a mother or father, you try to protect your kid from germs, you are actually not doing this kid much of a favour. The other bacteria are the pathogenic ones. These are the ones which try to invade our body, and they cause many severe diseases, for example tuberculosis, deadly meningitis or tetanus. Traditional antibiotics target basic bacterial functions, which means they try to kill them; but they do not discriminate the healthy ones from the pathogenic ones, which increases the side effects of the antibiotic therapy. It also increases the problem of multi-drug resistant bacteria, since they can communicate and get the new way of how to fight against those antibiotics.

In my research, I decided to take a new approach. Instead of targeting the general functions of bacteria, I would like to target the means which makes bacteria pathogenic. Instead of killing them, I would like not to allow them to colonise our body, by making them not motile, or to prevent them from injecting virulence factors. You can see here we have a scheme of bacteria. They have many mechanisms like flagella or pili which allow them to migrate in our body and attach to our cells. Moreover, they have something called secretion systems, which is a needle-like mechanism which injects virulence factors to our cells. The factors that make us sick. So I identified a protein which is called Elongation factor P, which actually turned out to be a major regulator of virulence in bacteria. Moreover, this protein is present in all bacteria but -this is good for us- there is a difference between species which makes it a unique target for new antibiotics.

Once we tried to target the specific protein instead of the general functions of bacteria, we can design specific antibiotics which are not targeting the healthy ones. I think as we are here in an insurance company, the key point is that this kind of antibiotic therapy will shorten hospitalisation periods, decrease side effects, allow faster recovery time, and will hopefully bring a cure for deadly infections. Even if you were not affected personally by severe bacterial infections, maybe one day, although I do not wish it to anyone, your child, someone in your family, your friend will be affected.

My parents and I were very happy, when I was a child, that there was a cure. I really hope that my research will bring the same happiness to families in the future. I would like to thank you for your attention, and I would be very happy to take questions. Godefroy BEAUVALLET You started your talk saying that multi-resistance of bacteria to antibiotics is more and more of a problem.

How this method would help in this regard? If you design new antibiotics, bacteria do not know them, so they will need some time to evolve with new mechanisms. That means that even if other antibiotics are not effective, you will have something that bacteria do not know. Bacteria are like humans, with their learning process..