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“Wolf’s liver taken in thin wine, the lard of a sow that has been fed upon grass, or the flesh of a she-ass taken in broth.” –Pliny the Elder

Ring of Inhibition

We’ve come a long way in some ways, at least since “flesh of a she-ass” was considered a specific remedy from disease.  Though, did you know that in early Greece moldy bread was a remedy against infection of wounds?  The mold was presumably a kind of penicillium that produced chemicals inhibiting bacterial growth.  On that fine day in 1928, Alexander Fleming had no idea he would discover something that would change medicine forever.  After coming back from vacation and sifting through the piles of clutter in his office he noticed a culture of staphylococcus in which a blue mold was growing.  The mold had pushed back the staph in a characteristic ring of inhibition.  As the story goes, he hypothesized that the mold must be producing something that retarded bacterial growth.  Penicillium chrysogenum produces the chemical backbone used to produce penicillin, an antibiotic which caused a great leap forward in western medicine.  The effect has been so great that the old killers of yesteryear, the terrible diseases that for ages struck fear in the hearts of man are no longer thought of in the same grave tone and are considered more of a nuisance to public health, a mere trifle in consideration of the far greater concerns of the general populace.  Perhaps the greatest triumph is the reaction of surprise that “people still get that?!”

The back bone of penicillin antibiotics, 6-aminopenicillanic acid, was originally isolated from cultures of Fleming’s Penicillium

Various functional groups can be added to the amino side chain to produce different drugs.

notatum.  It is a secondary metabolic product, released only when the mold is under environmental stress.  Early manufacturing methods were hampered, because finding just the right conditions for the mold to release the chemical proved difficult, thus production was initially low.  When the first human trial in the U.S. began in 1942, doctors used half of the nation’s total production of penicillin to cure him. The medical value placed upon it began a race to massively increase its production. Researchers from both Britan and the US worked tirelessly to not only elucidate the shape of the molecule, but develop better processes for producing it.  In 1943 a nationwide search was held to find better strains from which the B-lactam skeleton could be obtained.  The lucky winner was provided by a moldy cantaloupe from Illinois, which produced many times the amount of penicillin than Flemming’s original.  This strain exceeded expectations and was quickly put to work manufacturing the raw penicillin components.  At the time, it was so prized that during World War II doctors would collect their patient’s urine to isolate and reuse the excreted portion of penicillin.

Today genetically engineered strains manufacture it in large tanks where conditions such as the pH, temperature and diet are all automatically controlled to elicit maximum output (S).  The growth medium is key to the entire process, where the goal is to put them under nutritional strain.  Growth mediums are usually proprietary information, but they typically contain a source of carbon and nitrogen, which are chosen to make them work harder to gain the nutrition they need to survive.  Penicillium notatum prefers the simple 6 carbon sugar glucose, but can also digest a similar sugar called lactose.  This change in sugars forces them to work harder for the same amount energy.  Looking for an edge to outpace their competitors, they produce chemicals like 6-aminopenicillanic acid that impede bacterial growth.  The incubating contents are constantly aerated to allow for maximum growth throughout the tank.  When the growth phase has completed the contents are filtered and the raw product is extracted, concentrated and purified.  The liquid can then be altered chemically and turned into a number of antibiotics by adding functional groups to the base skeleton.

Upon discovery of the antibiotic nature of this compound, researchers put the skeleton through many thousands of reactions in order to find compounds with similar properties.  There are many kinds of penicillin, which differ by the addition of unique functional group.  For example, adding phenyl acetyl chloride to the purified preparation produces benzyl penicillin, or penicillin G, as it is more commonly known.  These new additions can change the properties of the original compound, endowing it with activity against a wider range of bacteria or a specific subset of them.  Penicillin G, for example, is strongest against Gram positive organisms, like staphylococci and streptococci, and gram negative cocci, like N. gonorrhoeae, but has low activity against bacteria that produce enzymes that inactivate the compound, called B-lactamases.  With N. gonorrhoeae, however, there has been increasing resistance of this kind reported and penicillin G is no longer considered the drug of choice to treat them.  According to William Strohl, “Over twenty percent of current isolates of N. gonorrhoeae are resistant to penicillin, tetracycline, cefoxitin, and/or spectinomycin.” (S)

B Lactams usually block the enzyme that ties these pieces together.

With such a wide range of activities against so many organisms one might wonder how they work.  Like all poisons, penicillins inhibit critical life processes in the species attacked. In this case, they inhibit bacterial growth by stopping the repair and replacement of their cell walls.  In affected strains, the cell walls are composed of long chains of six carbon sugars with amino acid side chains that weave the chains together like a net.  The long chains are made by polymerizing N-acetylglucosamine and N-acetlymuramic acid sugars into alternating units.  The side chains are made of repeating amino acid units, which differ per species, but for susceptible species they end with the combination D-alanyl-D-alanine amino acids.  B-Lactam antibiotics are natural analogues of these amino acids, which is to say they can fit into some of the same places as the natural bacterial amino acid piece can.  The antibiotics attach themselves to a special protein (the aptly named ‘penicillin binding protein’) that transports and tethers the D-alanyl-D-alanine amino acids to other chains in the cell wall, blocking its activity(S).  With these proteins blocked the cell wall can’t be replaced or repaired. Lysis results when the cell wall is unable to withstand the osmotic pressure upon it.

It is important to point out that these antibiotics are most active when bacteria are growing and synthesizing cell walls, which is fine for fast growing colonies, like the streptococci.  However mycobacteria, which are famous for causing tuberculosis and leprosy, have a dormant states where they don’t actively synthesize new cell wall components as well as impregnate them with certain lipids that impede the entry of penicillins.  In this context, an attack of this kind would be useless or at the very most a stop gap measure.  Since the colony isn’t completely killed off during treatment, this situation is favorable for the development of antibiotic resistances and the selection of hardy strains of the bacteria.  In a clinical setting these factors complicate issues, with treatments for tuberculosis taking upwards of a year or more to complete.

In a colony of 10^6 bacteria, the probability is that at least one will have resistance to a given antibiotic.  A typical mycobacterial colony will have something around 10^8 members, making the selection of strong, antibiotic resistant strains almost a certainty.  This problem is further compounded by a form of bacterial communication called horizontal gene transfer or plasmid exchange.  This is where a circular strand of DNA, typically encoding a gene producing a resistance, is absorbed by other bacteria allowing the technical means of resistance to spread. This is how bacteria such as the dreaded MRSA have developed and why infections from them are most common in hospitals. In the case of tuberculosis, multi-drug therapies utilizing non-B-lactam antibiotic combinations, like isonaizid-rifampin, can cure 95-98% of cases (S).  The probability that one will have a resistance against both antibiotics is very low and using two will usually kill the bacteria that have a selected immunity to one antibiotic alone.  The other 2-3% typically require specialized treatment and top of the line antibiotics, like moxifloxacin or rifabutin.  However, moxifloxacin resistant strains have been recently identified as a cause for concern (S).

Bacterial resistances usually present via four different routes: Reduced membrane permeability to the drug, production of an enzyme that deactivates the antibiotic (a B-lactamase, for example), a mutation in the PBP site where the antibiotic binds and finally, the creation of a means for drug removal (S).  With penicillins, B-Lactamase production is the most common form of resistance, some of which are highly specific to only one kind of drug (S).  B-lactamases attack the core structure of the penicillin molecule, breaking a critical carbon-nitrogen bond.  Mutations in penicillin binding proteins alter the shape of the binding site, making it harder for the B-lactam structure to fit.  In theory mutations could be great enough to block the penicillin from binding completely.  In practice, however, mutations that cause a PBP to be blocked entirely are often less useful functionally, because these will also block the D-alanyl-D-alanine amino acids they were originally intended for.  Small mutations are more useful to inhibit rather than block the penicillin and keep them from reaching a concentration necessary to inhibit bacterial growth. (S)  Gram negative bacteria usually develop resistances to antibiotic entry by changing the shape of receptors that transport the antibiotic across its membrane.  If the drug can’t pass through the membrane, it can’t attack the cell wall manufacturing machinery.  Another means that changes the membrane permeability is the creation of what is called an efflux pump.  These work to transport the antibiotics back across the membrane after entry.  These are of varied efficiencies, but always work to increase the amount of antibiotic required for efficacy.  Both mutation and changes in permeability are often paired with a B-Lactamase enzyme, making an effective, multi-front strategy for resistance.

Even though we have produced effective weapons against pathogenic bacteria, they have begun to fight back.  They have been largely successful in this regard, calling into question how long the usefulness of these drugs can be maintained.  This has spurred the demand for newer drugs to combat the potential ‘super-bugs’ on the horizon and limited use policies to maintain drug effectiveness in the future.  All in all, penicillin is generally considered non-toxic.  The worst adverse reactions are due to hypersensitivities.  Allergic reactions occur, however, this is a rarity occurring in less than 1% of people and is usually not life threatening (a rash, fever, etc).  Even less have a serious reaction, like anaphylactic shock (0.05% of patients).  In a worst-case scenario, though, desensitization to the drug can be used to effectively treat a given disease.

One thing is for sure is that we will continue to look in awe at the complexity life has to offer.  We hope that new attempts to cultivate and extract new antibiotics will be successful in the future.

{sources available upon request}

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