Dr. Li Deng of Helmholtz Zentrum München has been awarded a Starting Grant of the European Research Council (ERC). The scientist intends to tackle antimicrobial resistance by fighting bacteria with their natural enemies – the viruses. The grant is endowed with nearly 1.5 million euros for five years.
Emergence of antimicrobial resistance is a major threat to global health. Worldwide, more than 700,000 people died due to impaired action of antibiotic agents, and it is estimated to cause 10 million deaths a year by 2050. Li Deng, head of an Emmy-Noether Young Investigator Group at the Institute of Virology of Helmholtz Zentrum München and junior fellow at the Technical University of Munich, aims to tackle this problem with a new approach. In the framework of the newly founded ERC project PHARMS (Bacteriophage inhibition of antibiotic-resistant pathogenic microbes and founding of novel therapeutic strategies), she plans to fight pathogenic bacteria with their natural enemies – the viruses.
To this end, she uses viruses which specifically attack bacteria, so called bacteriophages. “With our approach we use the viruses and phage-derived inhibitors as a natural way to fight antimicrobial resistance”, Li Deng explains. “We hope that this might become a promising complement to antibiotics.” According to the scientist, the main obstacles in the clinical application of phage-based therapy are the limited number of phage isolates and the unknown molecular mechanisms of phage-delivered bactericidal action. “Moreover, we know too little about the mechanisms behind these bactericidal effects.”
Building on the recent advances of Deng’s group, PHARMS aims to deploy a systematic approach to identify the underlying mechanisms for phage inhibition of resistant bacteria strains. Based on this, the scientists aim to develop further phage derived therapeutic strategies. Using an interdisciplinary research plan, PHARMS will discover phage-specific bactericidal action modes at all possible levels ranging from nucleotide sequence and transcription to translation, in order to elucidate the molecular mechanisms driving phage-mediated inhibition of antimicrobial resistance. One example of the respective bacteria is Helicobacter pylori which is often found in the stomach and linked to gastric ulcers and stomach cancer.
In the long run, the project is positioned to provide the rational framework for the design of novel therapeutic strategies aimed at treating common and life-threatening infectious diseases. “The rapid spread of antimicrobial resistance, and its devastating consequences for patients as well as healthy individuals, makes it one of the most important scientific challenges of our time”, Li Deng says. “Our work aims at making helpful contributions to society in this context.”