Scientists using a new tool can ’see’ for the first time exactly how drugs work inside living TB cells to kill infectious microbes, paving the way for designing more potent antibiotics.

Researchers from the Weill Cornell Medical College have found that using mass spectrometry - a tool currently used to detect and measure proteins and lipids - they may be able to improve existing antibiotics and design new, smarter ones to fight deadly infections, such as tuberculosis.

“The development of antibiotics has been stalled for several decades and many infectious microbes have become drug-resistant,” says the study’s senior investigator, Researcher Kyu Y Rhee.

“We must restock the antibiotic pipeline and our study findings provide a powerful new approach for doing just that,” he said.

The need to develop new antibiotics is perhaps nowhere more pressing than for the treatment of tuberculosis, TB, which is the single leading bacterial cause of death worldwide, and with the emergence of now total drug resistance, an unchecked global public health emergency.

“Current TB treatments are long and complex, lasting a minimum of six months, and often resulting in treatment failures and the paradoxical emergence of multi-drug resistance,” said Rhee.

“We are still using the antibiotics that were first developed for TB about 50 years ago” he said.

Most TB drugs - as well as antibiotics for other infections - were developed through a combination of empirical approaches.

“However, it had been impossible to know what the drug was doing inside the bacteria,” Rhee explains.

Rhee and his colleagues applied modern technologies that stem from use of mass spectrometry to directly visualise what happens when these drugs infiltrate TB cells.

They can “watch” at a basic biochemical level, what happens to both the antibiotic agent and infecting bacteria over time after the drug is administered.

Mass spectrometry is a tool that weighs individual molecules as a way to identify them.

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