Bacteria Bacteria Atox Bio recently won a contract to further develop the AB103 compound to fight flesh-eating bacteria. (Photo: Kristijan Puljek / Shutterstock)

Immune-system research seeks to help the body treat flesh-eating bacteria

AB103 compound is 'first hope for life-threatening disease.'

The race for cures from powerful bacterial infections is an important area of medical research.

Each year, about 21,000 people in the U.S. suffer necrotizing soft tissue infections (NSTI) that often lead to having to amputate their limbs to survive.

Bacteria enters the body, usually through a minor cut or scrape, to get into the tissue that it poisons with toxins, allowing the infection to spread throughout the bloodstream. Without immediate intervention, many patients die. If doctors can treat the infection in time, patients still often need multiple invasive surgeries to amputate their limbs or remove pieces of infected flesh. 

Rather than try to completely destroy the bacteria, doctors have now found that an indirect approach can work to save limbs.

“Our drug, AB103, modulates the excessive inflammatory response and normalizes it,” Dan Teleman, CEO of Atox Bio, told From the Grapevine. 

Atox Bio won $24 million in funding from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to develop the AB103 compound, a peptide that modifies the body’s immune system to treat the deadly flesh-eating bacteria.

“By reducing, but not eliminating, the immune response, AB103 reduces the local and systemic damage caused by these infections,” Teleman said.

The Israeli company is using research from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The underlying science behind the treatment is the result of more than 20 years of research by scientists including Dr. Raymond Kaempfer, a molecular biologist at Hebrew University who previously taught at Harvard University.

“Our molecule is the first hope for this life-threatening disease,” Kaempfer told From the Grapevine. “No one else targets the host receptor, a human molecule that we have identified as being critical in mediating the severe infection symptoms. Patients treated with AB103 can leave intensive care earlier and need far fewer operations.”

In early studies, patients treated with AB103 needed fewer surgeries and spent less time breathing through a ventilator, and their organs returned to regular function more quickly.

In an April 2014 article published by the American Medical Association’s JAMA Surgery journal, researchers called AB103 a “safe, promising new agent for modulation of inflammation after NSTI.”

“Research on the molecular mechanism of inflammation sounds esoteric to the layman – yet it can be turned with the flick of a finger into useful applications that benefit mankind and save lives,” Kaempfer said. “That is why investment in basic research in Israel is so important. Understanding of the mechanism is essential for the design of an antidote.”

Atox Bio currently licenses AB103 from Yissum, the technology transfer company of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. With the new BARDA funding, Atox Bio will complete manufacturing, regulatory activities and a clinical trial.

The results could open up momentum to test other applications with wider markets. Eventually, AB103 could be used to fight infections, such as sepsis, caused by public health threats.

Meanwhile, Kaempfer said it’s rewarding to witness the fruit of his team’s discoveries. “It’s very gratifying to see that basic research on molecules and the insight into the immune system discovered in our laboratory can be turned into saving human lives,” he said. “That is most meaningful.”

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