Pioneering peptide research may tackle antibiotic-resistant disease

As this year's Oliver Fund Scholar, biochemistry professor William C. Wimley will study new treatment alternatives for the global epidemic of drug-resistant bacterial infections. (Photo by Guillermo Cabrera-Rojo)

William C. Wimley, professor of biochemistry at Tulane University School of Medicine, has been named the 2012-2013 Oliver Fund Scholar to develop novel treatment alternatives using peptides for the global epidemic of drug-resistant bacterial infections.

Tens of thousands of deaths in the United States alone are caused by bacterial infections that resist treatment by the usual chemical antibiotics, according to Wimley. As an increasing number of chemical antibiotics becomes ineffective, new approaches are desperately needed, he says.

Wimley’s laboratory will research the use of antimicrobial peptides, which have been investigated since the 1980s, as the basis for new drugs to treat drug-resistant bacteria.

Peptides are molecules comprised of between two and 50 amino acids bonded together. Insulin and other hormones are peptides. Antimicrobial peptides are those that have been observed to act against bacteria. Although some antimicrobial peptides exhibit drawbacks including toxicity at high concentrations, loss of effectiveness in blood or plasma, rapid degradation and lack of high solubility, they have the distinct advantage that bacteria do not develop resistance to them.

Wimley’s research is targeted to identifying useful antimicrobial peptides that will function effectively in patients, have no toxicity for human cells, are simple and inexpensive to manufacture and will remain in blood or plasma for a long time. His laboratory will develop new methods for screening large numbers of alternate peptides to find ones with these desirable qualities.

“Screening will be carried out in mixtures of bacteria and concentrated human erythrocytes [red blood cells] to identify antimicrobial peptides with the properties required of systemic anti-infective drugs,” says Wimley.

“Peptides with these properties could lead to a new treatment option for drug-resistant bacterial infection,” he says.

Tulane holds annual Oliver Fund research competitions focused on a particular area of research strength. Wimley’s winning proposal received a grant of $40,000.




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