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Germ-fighting insects

Judith Hartl / csc January 18, 2014

Pharmaceutical company, Sanofi, and Germany's Fraunhofer Institute have founded a joint research center where scientists will study how well natural products are suited for making antibiotics.

an insect
Image: Khondalkhan

The development of new antibiotics is long overdue, says Andreas Vilcinskas. That's why the biologist from the Fraunhofer Institute for Molecular Biology and Applied Ecology spearheaded the close cooperation with the French pharmaceutical giant Sanofi.

Antibiotics are important for fighting infections, like tuberculosis, successfully. But there are always less effective drugs. Several strains of bacteria are increasingly resistant and common antibiotics are no longer effective. That is a huge problem around the world, says Vilcinskas.

Learning from nature

In the future, researchers have to consider other strategies to develop effective drugs. In recent years, "more money has been invested into research, but fewer drugs have been developed." Now the motto is to "learn more from nature" and to study successful organisms and "how they protect themselves from dangerous pathogenes," says Vilcinskas.

Together with Sanofi, the fourth largest drugmaker in the world, Fraunhofer researchers want to develop antibiotics, which are based on natural substances, like classic Penicillin.

Bugs to the rescue -- antibiotic compounds from insects

But, in this case, the unusual focus of the Fraunhofer-Sanofi project, says Vilcinskas, is that it is exclusively looking at substances from insects. With more than a million species, insects are the largest animal group on Earth.

There is "an enormous cupboard of drugs" out there, the researcher says, pointing to maggot therapy, for instance. The therapy is already approved around the world as a medical treatment and is even available over the Internet.

"Maggots can accelerate healing, but no one knows exactly how the saliva of the worms heals a wound up to 18 times faster," he noted.

Insects in dirty places are particularly interesting

Insects that have had to adapt to living environments containing a lot of pathogenes, like bacteria and fungus, are especially interesting for drugmakers, says Vilcinskas; for example, rat-tailed maggots.

"They are the only animals that can live in manure" and that's why they have an excellent immune system so that they do not become ill. "We examined them and proved it."

Medizin Diabetes schlechte Wundheilung Bein Krankenschwester
Maggots, for example, can be used to clean away dead tissue from diabetes patientsImage: picture-alliance/dpa

The goal is to make such drugs in large quantities and bring them on the market. Unfortunately, the investment is too big, says Andreas Vilcinskas.

"Drug development takes 15 years on average and costs hundreds of millions," he explained.

Only the large pharmaceutical companies are willing to invest so much, Vilcinskas says: "that's why Fraunhofer is working with Sanofi."

To begin with, the researchers from Fraunhofer and Sanofi will work in the latter's labs in Frankfurt before moving into a new building in Giessen in 2017.