BioChemistry, Biotechnology, Education

Kary Mullis outmaneuvers drug resistant bacteria (BioTechniques)


Erin Podolak

Nobel Laureate Kary Mullis has developed a new technique for combating deadly drug-resistant bacteria.

Kary Mullis has a way to combat drug-resistant bacteria, he claims, and likens the technique to the illegal possession of marijuana.


“It’s kind of like when you get stopped for a traffic ticket in L.A. and the cop drops a bag of marijuana in the back of your car and then charges you with possession of marijuana,” said the Nobel Laureate. “It’s a very fast, very efficient way to get people off of the street.” Mullis’ technique is comparable to the drug possession scenario because it plants a foreign molecule onto bacteria, which makes the complex an immediate target for an immune response.

The technique is based on the alpha gal epitope, a molecule found in other living organisms that the human immune system does not recognize, and consequently attacks. According to Mullis, this molecule is the reason why organ transplants from pigs are often unsuccessful. However, he claims he has discovered the molecule’s value to humans. “Our immune system can eat it,” said Mullis “The cells in our immune system are always hungry.”

Scientists have not been able to halt the immune response triggered by the molecule. “So why don’t we use it?” said Mullis. According to Mullis, if you can attach the molecule to bacteria, an immune response will eliminate the bacteria, even if the bacterium is resistant to other therapeutics.

Mullis attached an antibody to the alpha gal epitope, which he then attached to pathogenic bacteria. The technique hastened the time needed for the body to produce an immune response to infection in mice. The body can tap into an immune response that is either preexistent or will develop quickly.

Speaking at the annual TED conference in Long Beach, CA earlier this year, Mullis declared success over drug-resistant bacteria. TED is a nonprofit organization that sponsors conferences and talks about controversial or groundbreaking issues. “I feel now like George Bush, mission accomplished,” said Mullis. “I might be doing something dumb like he was at the time, but we’ve gotten it to work.”

According to Mullis researchers from his company, Altermune, tested the technique on mice infected with anthrax. “They all survived. They lived 14 or 28 days until we finally killed them and took them apart to find out what went wrong and why they didn’t die,” said Mullis. ”They didn’t die because they didn’t have anthrax anymore.”

Mullis undertook the project after a close friend died last year of a Staph infection when powerful antibiotics failed to work. Mullis has been working to develop DNA aptamers that can bind to target sites on bacteria. The alpha gal epitope is attached the DNA aptamer, which then binds with the bacteria. The aptamer is programmed to seek out the bacteria and initiate an immune response.

In April, Mullis told an audience of San Jose State University students and faculty that he had a cure for the H1N1 flu. Mullis, who won the Nobel Prize in 1993 for discovering polymerase chain reaction, is a controversial figure in science and known for his strong opinions.

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