Could Arsenic Be the New Superbug SuperDrug​?

Data from the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicates that probably more than two million people get infected with antibiotic-resistant bacteria every year.  At least 32,000 of these patients die, every year, as a direct result of these types of infections. Indeed, the World Health Organization said, in February of 2018, that these quickly evolving threats are emerging and spreading globally, threatening our ability to treat the most common infections across the world. 

Of course, that means there is a growing need for new medications that can help to kill these very strong superbugs.  Without new drugs, we may no longer be able to successfully address conditions that were easy to treat. This includes infections like:  pneumonia, gonorrhea, blood poisoning, tuberculosis, and various food-borne illnesses. 

Indeed co-lead author Masafumi Yoshinaga, of the FIU Department of Cellular Biology and Pharmacology, notes, “We are running out of tools to fight these diseases. We need a new potent antibiotic to solve this problem.”

With that, new research from Florida International University suggests that the solution may reside in what was, at one time, seen only as a poison. According to researchers, a broad-spectrum antibiotic based on arsenic could hold the key. 

Co-lead study author Barry Rosen comments, “The antibiotic, arsinothricin or AST, is a natural product made by soil bacteria and is effective against many types of bacteria, which is what broad-spectrum means. Arsinothricin is the first and only known natural arsenic-containing antibiotic, and we have great hopes for it.”

With that, it should be noted that even though this treatment contains toxic arsenic, researchers say that testing AST toxicity on human blood cells has proven safe. 

Of course, the team is now working on patenting this discovery in hopes it can be taken through the appropriate pharmaceutical channels and developed into a proper drug.  That is quite an extensive and expensive process that could take 10 years (and maybe several billion dollars).  And, Rosen adds, “More than 90% of potential drugs fail in clinical trials. But if you don’t bring new drugs into the pipeline, you won’t find the ones that work.”

The study has been published in two journals: “Nature” and “Communications Biology.”