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Study aims to halt superbug threat

A University of St Andrews scientist has been awarded Wellcome Trust funding to prevent people falling victim to “superbugs” in hospital.

Professor James Naismith has secured £637,000 to map out the structure and mechanism of the proteins that make the drug Vancomyacin. The drug is the last line of defence against MRSA, the bug which cannot be treated with any other antibiotic.

Resistance against Vancomyacin would render MRSA virtually untreatable and some bacteria can tolerate this drug. The award of five years’ funding is a recognition of the importance of the project and the progress Professor Naismith has made in finding new ways to treat bacterial infection.

The drug is not made in the lab but isolated from natural sources. The work is focussed on understanding how the carbohydrate part of Vancomyacin is made. With this understanding, new antibiotics could be developed which would treat those with bacteria which have developed resistance to Vancomyacin. The project is in collaboration with Harvard Medical School and a team led by Professor Chris Walsh.

Professor Naismith explained, “Bacterial diseases once again threaten to be a significant burden to the most vulnerable in our society. At particular risk are those in intensive care units, those with damaged or compromised immune systems such as AIDS, chemotherapy and transplant patients and the elderly. It is the evolution of tolerance of bacteria to our current collection of antibiotics that lies behind this danger. Vancomyacin remains the last line of defence against MRSA and other gram positive bacteria. This five-year study aims to home in on the glycan found attached to Vancomyacin and we hope that, by modifying this glycan through protein engineering, new antibiotics can be generated.”

At 33, Naismith is one of the youngest Wellcome Trust Programme Grant holders in the UK and one of the youngest Professors in the University of St Andrews. He holds a Research Council Fellowship, is based at the £9m Centre for Biomolecular Sciences and specialises in the synthesis of carbohydrates (sugars) bacteria. His previous Wellcome Trust work in disease-causing organisms, such as E-coli, Salmonella and TB had identified a new potential treatment for these diseases. This is because bacteria die or become harmless without such carbohydrates and the study of carbohydrate synthesis is vital in finding ways to block this process, effectively disabling these harmful diseases.

ENDS

NOTES TO EDITORS

Professor Naismith is available for interview today. Please call 01334 463792.

Professor Naismith, 33, originally from Hamilton, is married with 2 children and lives in St Andrews. Whilst studying for a BSc in Chemistry at Edinburgh University, he was awarded the prestigious Carnegie scholarship. The award, granted to just 10 students of Scottish descendance a year, took him to Manchester in 1989 to study for his PhD.

He has a special affinity for Texas after completing a prestigious NATO Fellowship at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Centre, and returns at least once a year.

Professor Naismith joined the University of St Andrews in 1995, setting up a protein crystallography laboratory, and lecturing in Chemistry and Molecular Biology. He was awarded the Royal Society of Chemistry Carbohydrate Chemistry Medal for his work.

The University’s state-of-the-art BMS (Biomolecular Sciences) building was opened in 1998 and brings together scientists from Chemistry and Biology, and focuses on the interface between the two fields. By bringing together scientists from different disciplines it allows ideas and resources to be pooled, making disease-tackling more effective.

Issued by Beattie Media on behalf of the University of St Andrews For more information please contact Claire Grainger on 01334 462530, 07730 415 015 or email cg24@st-andrews.ac.uk Ref: jimnaismith/standrews/chg/16may2002

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