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A new way to fight drug-resistant bacteria

Janice Haney Carr / CDC

Chemists have figured out a way to get through the thick outer membrane found in some bacteria, which they say could lead to new antibiotics for drug-resistant infections.

Why it matters: Drug-resistant bacteria pose a serious global health threat. In the U.S. alone, an estimated 23,000 people die each year from infections that can't be fought with existing antibiotics. E.Coli, acetinobacter that can be picked up in hospitals, and other types of bacteria with a tough outer membrane are becoming increasingly resistant to drugs. Efforts to create new antibiotics have come up short because they can't get into the cell.

How it works: Chemists at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign tested 180 different compounds that could penetrate E. Coli and figured out what features allowed some to make it through the cell membrane. Using those attributes, they then modified a natural compound that works on the other class of bacteria (without an outer membrane) and found it could then penetrate both types of microbes.

What's next: Getting in is step one — a compound would also have to kill the bug. The researchers point out that the compound itself may not work for treatment but that they now have a list of features that they hope can guide discovery and development of new drugs.