A Super Cure for the Superbug?

May 17, 2006 — -- Earlier this year, former Washington Redskins defensive tackle Brandon Noble explained to ABC News how a severe staph infection had sidelined his career.

"The kind of repercussions that can come from it are shocking and scary," said Noble, who nearly had lost a leg.

Noble had a specific type of staph bacterial infection known as MRSA, which stands for methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus. MRSA and other similar "superbug" infections are practically immune to most antibiotics, making them tricky to treat. They're a growing problem, too. More than 130,000 people each year need hospital care for MRSA, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A report published in today's issue of the journal Nature, however, explains how a specific compound taken from another bacteria -- one discovered in the soil of South Africa -- could one day be a potent new treatment for MRSA and many other infection causing bacteria.

The discovery was a trial-and-error process, said scientists with Merck & Co.

"We screened over 250,000 extracts that came from things isolated all the way around the world," Merck scientist Stephen M. Soisson told the Associated Press.

When scientists tested the newly discovered soil bacteria compound on mice infected with staph, it cleared their infections, and left the mice with no toxic side effects.

The compound, known as platensimycin, works unlike any other antibiotic. While traditional antibiotics inhibit the growth of the cell wall of the bacteria, platensimycin inhibits fatty acid synthesis, a chemical action that provides energy to cells.

"Platensimycin is a significant new antibacterial compound with an extraordinary mechanism," said Eric Brown, a microbiologist with McMaster University in Ontario in an editorial accompanying the report.

He noted, however, that the compound's effectiveness and safety in humans remained to be seen. Also, as with any other antibiotics, bacteria could learn to out-smart it.

"Nevertheless. … Its discovery is an encouraging one," he said.