DTRA awards grant to develop antibiotics to bioweapons

Researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Center for Pharmaceutical Biotechnology have been awarded a grant from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency to develop antibiotics for anthrax, tularemia and plague.

The five year contract is worth up to $13.8 million. The DTRA is the U.S. Department of Defense’s combat-support agency that counters weapons of mass destruction. The three diseases are caused by “category-A” bacterial agents that could be used in biowarfare and bioterrorism.

Bacteria-based bioweapons can be a major danger to civilians and military personnel because they are easily disseminated, could result in high mortality and have a potentially major public health impact.

"New antibiotics targeting resistance are strongly needed," Michael Johnson, the lead researcher on the contract, said. "However, the pharmaceutical industry has largely abandoned antibiotic research. There are few antibiotics in the development pipeline, and most of those in development target currently established mechanisms of action, potentially making them immediately susceptible to drug resistance."

Some strains of anthrax become resistant to antibiotic drugs, which occurs partly because most antibiotics target the “active site” of a single enzyme. If even a single genetic mutation changes, this can lead to antibiotic resistance. Johnson and his research team have experimented with targeting sequential enzymes for bacteria that are necessary for their survival. The team found that these enzymes may be effective targets for novel broad-spectrum antibiotic development.