Scientists on Wednesday announced an advance in the quest to solve the growing problem of antibiotic resistance, saying they had found a soft spot in the armor of bacterial cells.
A resilient class of germs called Gram-negative bacteria have an impermeable lipid-based outer membrane that defends the cell against the human immune system as well as antibiotics.
Removing the barrier would cause the bacteria to become vulnerable and die.
Scientists at the University of East Anglia said they have discovered how cells transport the membrane building blocks — molecules called lipopolysaccharides.
“We have identified the path and gate used by the bacteria to transport the barrier building blocks to the outer surface,” Changjiang Dong from the university’s Norwich Medical School said in a statement.
“Importantly, we have demonstrated that the bacteria would die if the gate is locked,” he added.
The discovery, published in the journal Nature, paves the way for new drugs to disrupt the building process, thus bringing down the cell walls, the team said.
In April, the WHO said that the rise of drug resistance was allowing once-treatable diseases to once again become deadly.
Drug resistance makes illnesses more difficult and expensive to cure, and is spread through an entirely preventable means — improper use of antibiotics.
Some germs, like those that cause tuberculosis, can be resistant to multiple drugs.
Meanwhile, deaths in West Africa’s three-nation Ebola outbreak has risen to 337, WHO said on Wednesday, making it the deadliest ever outbreak of the hemorrhagic fever.
Fresh data from the UN health agency showed that the number of deaths in Guinea, the hardest-hit country, has reached 264, while 49 had died in Sierra Leone and 24 in Liberia.
The new count marks a more than 60-percent increase since WHO’s last figure on June 4, when it said 208 people had succumbed to the deadly virus.
Including the deaths, 528 people across the three countries have contracted Ebola, one of the deadliest viruses known to man, WHO said.
A majority of cases, 398 of them, have surfaced in Guinea, where West Africa’s first Ebola outbreak began in January.
Sierra Leone has registered 97 cases, while Liberia has seen 33.
WHO has described the epidemic as one of the most challenging since the virus was first identified in 1976 in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DR Congo).
That outbreak, until now the deadliest, killed 280 people, according to WHO figures.
Ebola is a tropical virus that can fell its victims within days, causing severe fever and muscle pain, weakness, vomiting and diarrhea — in some cases shutting down organs and causing unstoppable bleeding.
No medicine or vaccine exists for Ebola, which is named after a small river in the DR Congo.
Aid organizations have said the current outbreak has been especially challenging, since people in many affected areas have been reluctant to cooperate with aid workers and due to the practice of moving the dead to be buried in other villages.
West African authorities have also been struggling to stop mourners from touching bodies during traditional funeral rituals.