Solving Mystery of How Sulfa Drugs Kill Bacteria Yields 21st Century Drug Development Target
St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital scientists have discovered a key enzyme structure in bacteria, a finding that lays the foundation for a new generation of antibiotics that are safer and less prone to drug resistance.
More than 70 years after the first sulfa drugs helped to revolutionize medical care and save millions of lives, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital scientists have determined at an atomic level the mechanism these medications use to kill bacteria. The discovery provides the basis for a new generation of antibiotics that would likely be harder for bacteria to resist and cause fewer side effects.
The work focused on sulfa drugs and their target enzyme, dihydropteroate synthase (DHPS). Most disease-causing microorganisms need DHPS to help make the molecule folate, which is required for the production of DNA and some amino acids. Working with enzymes from gram-negative and gram-positive bacteria, researchers used a variety of techniques to determine for the first time the key intermediate structure DHPS forms during the chemical reaction to advance folate production. The structure also explains at a molecular level how sulfa drugs function and how resistance causing mutations help bacteria withstand them.
The findings mark a major advance in both microbial biochemistry and anti-microbial drug discovery. The study is published in the March 2 issue of the journal Science.
“The structure we found was totally unexpected and really opens the door for us and others to design a new class of inhibitors targeting DHPS that will help us avoid side effects and other problems associated with sulfa drugs,” said Stephen White, Ph.D., chair of the St. Jude Department of Structural Biology and the paper’s corresponding author.
Co-author Richard Lee, Ph.D., a member of the St. Jude Department of Chemical Biology and Therapeutics, added: “Now we want to leverage this information to develop drugs against the opportunistic infections that threaten so many St. Jude patients.”
Sulfa drugs were discovered in the 1930s and became the first antibiotic in widespread use. Although the drugs were early victims of antibiotic resistance, they are still widely used against emerging infectious diseases and to prevent infections in patients with weakened immune systems, including St. Jude patients undergoing cancer chemotherapy. The growing problem of antibiotic resistance has prompted renewed interest in sulfa drugs as a possible source of new therapeutic targets, Lee said.
Previous work had shown that sulfa drugs target DHPS and work by mimicking a molecule called pABA. DHPS advances folate production by accelerating the fusion of pABA and another molecule called dihydropteridine pyrophosphate (DHPP). Until now, however, scientists did not know exactly how the DHPS reaction occurred or how sulfa drugs disrupted the process.
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