Dixie State University researcher looks for new ways to treat drug-resistant skin infections

Amidst epidemics of new viruses and resurgences of diseases which were once thought to be effectively eradicated, a well-characterized medical crisis continues to plague hospitals and their patients: antibiotic-resistant infections.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers this to be a serious health crisis for the public, noting that “Antibiotic-resistant bacteria can cause illnesses that were once easily treatable with antibiotics to become untreatable, leading to dangerous infections…In some cases, the antibiotic-resistant infections can lead to serious disability or even death.”

Rico Del Sesto, Ph.D., associate professor of chemistry at Dixie State University, and his collaborators at Northern Arizona State University are hoping to find solutions to address antibiotic-resistant skin infections by targeting the impenetrable protective film made by the bacteria. His research is, in part, made possible through a recent grant from the Utah Science Technology and Research Initiative (USTAR), the first for Dixie State.

“The USTAR grant provides a significant bridge to get our products from the research phase to a pre-clinical phase in preparation for moving towards FDA-trials of our antimicrobial materials,” said Del Sesto.

Bacteria can develop resistance to antibiotics in a number of ways, making traditional forms of medication ineffective and successful treatment more difficult. This occurs in several ways, including overuse of antibiotics, which leads to the death of weaker bacteria and survival of the stronger ones.

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Bacteria methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA)

Del Sesto’s project is funded to exploit his recent discoveries for a new treatment target against Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, a genetically unique and antibiotic-resistant strain of Staphylococcus aureus. 

Staph can colonize the skin and are associated with infections such as cellulitis, folliculitis, and skin abscesses, which can lead to life-threatening conditions such as toxic shock syndrome and sepsis. Staph bacteria are found naturally on the skin or in the nose of all individuals, and most of the times cause no problems or only minor skin infections.

However, because the bacteria are so common, staph infections can occur frequently in communal settings, such as a barracks or the local gym. People in healthcare settings, who may have an open surgical wound, require the use of an invasive device such as a catheter, or have a weakened immune system, are particularly at risk.

While most staph infections can be treated effectively with beta-lactam antibiotics, a broad-spectrum group of medicines that include penicillin and penicillin derivatives, MRSA infections are unique in that they are resistant to these common treatments.

“Treatment of patients with MRSA is difficult, and even with treatment, recurring infections can result that eventually become overwhelming for the person and the immune system to handle, said Del Sesto. “Due to the fact that MRSA are so difficult to clear from patients and medical devices, the spread of infection is becoming more challenging to address.”

However, unlike traditional treatments, such as oral antibiotics which are limited in their ability to access the location of the MRSA infection, Del Sesto is developing a topically applied liquid for direct treatment at the skin infection site.

“Our materials are intended to penetrate the upper layers of human skin and reach the site of infection. Additionally, our materials have been shown in a controlled laboratory setting to degrade the biofilm, exposing the bacteria to the toxic effects of our material,” explained Del Sesto. “As a result, topical administration is expected to be effective, and to reduce or altogether avoid untoward effects of systemic exposure normally associated with traditional antibiotics.”

After the proof-of-principle phase funded by USTAR, Del Sesto plans to explore several options to continue drug development toward a final drug design, clinical validation and commercialization; one such option is a new business startup.

Del Sesto’s project and technology highlight the opportunities for economic growth in regions located off the Wasatch Front. Resources, such as USTAR, he says, provide a catalyst to help jump-start diversified growth to ensure sustainable economies in rapidly growing regions like Washington County.

“It seems to be a great opportunity for the state to capitalize on these marketable ideas through minimal investment with potentially huge returns through economic development,” said Del Sesto.

In the coming months, Del Sesto’s project will move to an early animal model testing finalization of the product formulation, and preparation for FDA consent to begin clinical trials. The project hopes to play a significant role in the development of new treatment methods to combat antibiotic-resistant infections like MRSA

To learn more about other USTAR supported projects, visit USTAR.org.