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Dartmouth Investigators Develop Antibacterial Enzymes to Combat Drug-Resistant Bacterial Pathogens

April 02, 2015
Lebanon, NH

By engineering antibacterial enzymes, Dartmouth investigators led by Karl Griswold, PhD are using novel strategies to target the prevalent drug-resistant bacterium Staphylococcus aureus. Recent papers in FEMS Microbiology Letters and Applied Microbiology and Biotechnology describe their findings from a genome mining effort seeking novel antibacterial agents.  A third paper published in ACS Chemical Biology examines redesigned versions of human lysozyme, a broad-spectrum antibacterial enzyme.

antibacterial enzyme

The fluorescent micrograph shows gel microdroplets containing bacterial target cells (small black clusters) or bacterial cells co-encapsulated with GFP labeled yeast (larger green cells). Yeast secreting active bacteriolytic enzymes kill co-encapsulated bacteria resulting in orange fluorescent staining with the SYTOX viability probe.

"Antibacterial enzymes, which kill via catalytic mechanisms, represent promising candidates in the fight against drug-resistant microbes," explained Griswold. "Staph infections in hospital settings are a serious problem that has gained widespread public attention, and there's an urgent need to address the threat of antibiotic resistance. Using molecular engineering, we are expanding the pool of antibacterial drug candidates and improving their performance."

In the studies on Staphylococcus aureus, Griswold's team showed that a bacteria's own molecular machinery for cell wall synthesis and remodeling can be turned against itself. Using genetic engineering, the enzymes can be modified such that, when applied from the outside, they attack and kill the bacteria from which they were originally cloned. The key is using bioinformatics to identify a bacteria's endogenous "autolysins," which are enzymes involved in physiological processes such as cell division, and then leveraging molecular engineering strategies to convert the autolysins into potent antibacterial agents.

Additionally, they examined strategies for generating performance-enhanced versions of lysozyme, a natural antibacterial protein that helps protect humans from microbial invaders. To shield themselves from lysozyme mediated killing, some pathogens have evolved proteins that specifically bind and inactivate human lysozyme. Griswold demonstrated that it is possible to redesign the enzyme to evade these pathogen-derived inhibitory proteins, which resulted in modified lysozymes that can lyse bacteria under conditions where natural human lysozyme is completely inactivated.

To-date, the antibiotics field has been dominated by development of antibacterial chemotherapies. The Griswold group is part of a growing community of researchers examining a fundamentally different strategy: antibacterial enzymes. The enzymes attack bacterial cell components that are highly conserved during microbial evolution and, as a result, these alternative therapeutic options may be less susceptible to development of new bacterial resistance phenotypes.

"In the case of turning bacteria's own autolysins against themselves, we speculate that bacterial resistance might be exceedingly rare, as the enzymes play important roles in natural bacterial processes," said Griswold.

Further challenges for Griswold's team include discovery of additional antibacterial enzyme candidates, more fine-tuning of the current enzymes so as to increase their potency, and redesign of the inhibitor-evading lysozymes to better elude a broader spectrum of pathogen-derived inhibitory proteins. Long term, they hope to partner with industry in pursuit of clinical translation for promising therapeutic candidates.


Karl Griswold is Professor of Engineering at Dartmouth's Thayer School of Engineering. His work in cancer is facilitated by Dartmouth's Norris Cotton Cancer Center in Lebanon, NH. Funding for these projects was provided by the National Institutes of Health grants R21AI098122, P30GM106394, R21AI094391, T32DK007301, and Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center's Hitchcock Foundation Pilot Program Project Grant.

About Dartmouth-Hitchcock Norris Cotton Cancer Center

Norris Cotton Cancer Center combines advanced cancer research at Dartmouth and the Geisel School of Medicine with patient-centered cancer care provided at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, NH, at Dartmouth-Hitchcock regional locations in Manchester, Nashua, and Keene, NH, and St. Johnsbury, VT, and at 12 partner hospitals throughout New Hampshire and Vermont. It is one of 41 centers nationwide to earn the National Cancer Institute's "Comprehensive Cancer Center" designation. Learn more about Norris Cotton Cancer Center research, programs, and clinical trials online at cancer.dartmouth.edu.

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