Vitamins are fundamental molecules not only for human life, but also for the lives of many other living organisms, including bacteria.
In several cases, however – according to a group of German researchers – vitamins that are similar in every way to “real” vitamins, with just a few tiny differences in their chemical composition, could also cause the death of these microorganisms, supporting antibiotics in the increasingly difficult “war” against drug-resistant bacteria.
The idea of using “false” vitamins, known as antivitamins, to fight bacterial infections came from researchers at the University of Göttingen and the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry, who published the results of their work in the scientific journal Nature Chemical Biology.
The researchers started by observing what happens in nature: several bacterial species fight other antagonistic species by producing a series of antivitamins, which cause the death of the attacked species. Up to now it was unclear how this occurred, and in order to understand the reasons why, the biologists asked their biophysics colleagues for help.
Using highly-advanced techniques (a combination of crystallography and electronic microscopy), the researchers discovered that the antivitamin B1, for example, only has one atom that differs from its original structure. In fact, this tiny difference is enough to block the entire metabolism of the bacteria that is attempting to use the antivitamins as if they were normal, and hence causing it to die. To better illustrate this concept, the researchers compared the antivitamins to a grain of sand that is inserted into a vital mechanism, and that jams it until it is completely blocked.
The researchers checked the effect of the anti-vitamin B1 on strains of E-coli bacteria, which were annihilated thanks to the “deceptive” version of the vitamin. The scientists claim that this can presumably also be the case with other antivitamins, and that in the future these substances could be used as direct drugs against various pathogenic species.
These studies are only in the early stages and a lot of further research will be necessary in order to understand if this pathway is actually feasible. However, using the same weapons as nature has often proven to be a winning approach and this may also be the case this time. Moreover, the need to find new, more effective treatments against antibiotic-resistant bacteria is continuously being stressed by international public health organizations.
As the World Health Organization has highlighted several times, by asking for efforts to be stepped up, if bacteria resistant to multiple antibiotics capable of causing serious or deadly diseases were to spread, we would be facing another, dramatic crisis like that of Covid-19, or even worse.
Yet, every year drug-resistant infections – and especially those contracted in hospital – cause tens of thousands of deaths worldwide, without any effective solution being found. Antivitamins could open a new avenue along this difficult path.