Tilmann Weber

Research program on new antibiotics receives 58 M DKK

Thursday 26 Jan 17
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Tilmann Weber
Professor
DTU Biosustain
+4524 89 61 32

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Anne Wärme Lykke
Communications Officer
DTU Biosustain
+4521 12 37 70

The partners are:

  • Dr. Tilmann Weber, Prof. Bernhard Palsson, The Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Biosustainability – DTU Biosustain – at Technical University of Denmark
  • Dr. Olga Genilloud, Fundación MEDINA, Granada, Spain
  • Prof. Sang Yup Lee, KAIST, Daejeon, South Korea

The Novo Nordisk Foundation has granted 58 Million DKK for a big research program aiming at discovering new antibiotics. The battle against antibiotic resistance is on.

We need new antibiotics. It’s as simple as that. Many disease-causing bacteria no longer respond to existing antibiotics. But actually, there is not much work being done in this area, explains Tilmann Weber, Senior Scientist, Co-Principal Investigator and leader of a new program, which has recently been granted 58 Million DKK (7.7 M Euro) by the Novo Nordisk Foundation:

“Today, only few pharmaceutical companies are actively working in developing truly novel antibiotics and not only variants of existing drugs. The development pipelines are almost empty, because the payoff has been too low for many years," Tilmann Weber says and continues:

"But the problem is that our current antibiotics are quickly becoming ineffective, leaving patients at risk of dying from even simple infections. So, we need to find new antibiotics now – and we need to optimize the ways, we can find them.”

A new approach

Until now, researchers looking for new antibiotics would often try to grow soil bacteria and assess if any of them could kill disease-causing bacteria. Afterwards, they would isolate the antimicrobial compound. But in this program, the approach is quite different and very new.

The researchers at The Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Biosustainability – DTU Biosustain – at Technical University of Denmark are using laboratory evolution to induce antibiotics production. This means, that they grow different microbes together in order to see if they start fighting each other.

“Often, nothing happens in these co-cultivations. But when we use the correct conditions, one organism can gain advantage by fighting the other by “waking up” some silent genes, we didn’t know existed. In this way, we can find novel compounds no one has ever discovered before.”

One of the world’s largest strain collections
"Antibiotics are quickly becoming ineffective, leaving patients at risk of dying from even simple infections. We need to find new antibiotics now – and we need to optimize the ways, we can find them"
Tilmann Weber, Senior Scientist, Co-Principal Investigator, and leader of the new program IIMENA

The Spanish non-profit research center Fundación MEDINA is also part of the project and is in the possession of one of the world’s largest strain collections of potential antibiotic producing bacteria. Fundación MEDINA has established high-throughput processes for analysing the strains and their products.

“By integrating this unique approach with new Bioinformatics and Metabolic Engineering platforms that are developed at DTU and KAIST we are in an excellent starting position to achieve our goals”, Tilmann Weber states.

The difference is speed

The aim is also to identify the genes responsible for the antimicrobial activity and eventually incorporate those into cell factories optimized to produce such molecules.

Even if the genes or gene clusters originate from a soil bacterium, it gives a big advantage to work with them in well characterized model organisms, where metabolic engineering tools are already established and can immediately be used.

The project also requires advanced and specialized robots that can test the microbes quickly and effectively.

“We are very excited to get started on this program and start hiring people. We are confident that we will discover new compounds with our strategy that later can be taken up by the industry for further development into antibiotic drugs, and thereby contribute to address this sever societal challenge of antimicrobial resistance,” Tilmann Weber says.

The program is called IIMENA, which is short for ‘Integration of Informatics and Metabolic Engineering for the discovery of Novel Antibiotics’, and will run for 6 years. The grant was awarded as part of the 2016 Novo Nordisk Foundation’s Challenge Programme.

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