Universiteit Leiden

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Clever variant of antibiotic bypasses resistance in bacteria

Biological chemist Nathaniel Martin is going to test an alternative antibiotic that can combat common resistant bacteria such as MRSA. For this purpose, he will receive 350,000 euros from the NWO's NACTAR programme. ‘We want to know how safe and effective our antibiotic is in a realistic situation.’

Safer and more effective

Martin and his group are working on a potential alternative to vancomycin. Doctors around the world use this extremely important antibiotic on a daily basis to fight harmful bacteria. However, there are two significant problems associated with vancomycin. Firstly, it sometimes causes unpleasant side effects, such as kidney damage. However, the main problem is that the resistance to vancomycin in increasing. Doctors therefore have a great need for a new antibiotic against which bacteria have no defence.

Synthetic natural product?

Martin and his colleagues developed a new, semi-synthetic antibiotic. ‘Semisynthesis involves starting from a complex natural product’, he explains. ‘In our case, we started with vancomycin made by bacteria and modified its structure in the lab using organic chemistry. This leads to new semisynthetic variants of the natural compound, with improved properties.’

The alternative antibiotic that Martin developed this way is a thousandfold better at killing bacteria than vancomycin and also works very well against serious pathogens, including vancomycin-resistant strains. Leiden University has applied for a patent for the use of this new antibiotic to treat infections.

Effect in the body

That is why the team will now both evaluate the effect of their new antibiotic on human cells and also test how well the antibiotic can cure infections such as methicillin-resistant S. aureus (MRSA) in animals. ‘We want to see how safe and effective our antibiotic is in a realistic situation,’ says Martin. ‘We already know that these antibiotics can kill dangerous bacteria very effectively in the lab, but we also need to demonstrate that they work against real infections in the body. This award from NWO is therefore hugely important because it allows us to fully investigate the potential of this interesting new class of antibiotics.’

The new studies to be performed in the NACTAR project will build on the promising results generated by three PhDs in the Martin group: Emma van Groesen, Nicola Wade, and Kamal Tehrani.


The NACTAR programme is a collaboration between the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport and the NWO domain of Applied and Technical Sciences. Together they invested almost 7 million euros in the research programme.
Martin's project is part of a second call, which aims to bring newly developed antibiotics, products and/or alternative treatments into the phase of (pre-) clinical testing. The projects from this last call are expected to contribute to the translation of previously developed antimicrobial molecules, therapies and/or treatments to the clinic, aimed at curing human infectious diseases caused by resistant bacteria.

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