Exploring Mother Nature’s medicine cabinet

Did you know antibiotic-resistant bacteria could become the world’s deadliest infection within 30 years? According to the World Health Organization, these drug-resistant superbugs are projected to surpass cancer as the world’s leading cause of death by 2050. Already, about 23,000 Americans die each year from these bacteria because many strains are resistant to at least one treatment.

That’s why research by Bradley biochemistry graduate student Cassie Philips ’21 is important to medicine. She is exploring a compound developed by chemistry professor Brad Andersh to see how effectively it might attack rogue fungi.

“It’s our lives at stake,” Philips said. “I don’t want to die from a UTI because someone else made it resistant. Now we’re at the point we’ve made everything and it’s less effective. Now what? It’s up to people like me to make that difference.”

Andersh designed a one-step process to prepare compounds that resemble naturally occurring compounds. This made it easier to produce a substance that could become an antibacterial drug. Philips is experimenting to see what tweaks could enhance the compound’s antimicrobial strength. Eventually, she hopes the compound will be tested on blood and organ cells. If the compound attacks bacteria but not the vital cells, it could be sent to pharmaceutical labs for further development.

“It would be exciting if this would go to market,” Philips said. “If you have a drug that seems safe, you want to share it with the world, but so much testing has to be done. You want to make sure yours has enough background they want to use it.” 

While infections become immune to penicillin variants and synthetic medicines, natural solutions remain an untapped resource, as only 20 percent of potential natural compounds are being studied by pharmaceutical companies. Philips’ research discovered numerous unused natural compounds with infection-fighting qualities similar to the Bradley molecule.

The big stumbling block, Philips believes, is the financial gain for pharmaceutical companies. Knowing antimicrobial drugs will only be useful for a couple years before infections develop resistance, companies focus research and development on medicines for chronic conditions like hypertension or diseases like cancer.

“If you put money into a drug that could become obsolete in a few years, there’s not a huge profit outlook,” she said. “It’s unfortunate that, even though people are aware of antimicrobial resistance, there isn’t enough potential for profit for companies to invest.”

As a result, university-level research is playing a significant role in the future of medicine. Teams like Andersh and Philips are conducting ground-level studies on potential compounds to enhance the pharmaceutical body of knowledge. The greater the information base, the better the odds of finding the next lifesaving medicines.

“My goal always has been to help people, and I see how great research can be,” Philips, said. “I hope what I do is different than what the pharmaceutical world has seen. I’m happy to use nature to look into these issues and see what happens.”

Matt Hawkins