A CHANCE discovery by North-East academics could pave the way for a new generation of antibiotics.

Concern is growing among experts that many existing antibiotics are losing their power to fight disease as bacteria develops immunity because of their overuse.

The Newcastle University team outline their find today (Thursday July 4) in a paper published in the journal Molecular Microbiology.

They made the discovery while studying a protein derived from E.coli bacteria, called Colicin N, an effective killer of competing bacteria that can kill a whole cell with just one molecule.

Researchers divided the protein into three parts that included a tail-like part that was assumed to be harmless to the bacteria .

But they found instead that the ‘tail’ can kill bacteria, which they say could mean that new antibiotics derived from this part could be developed.

Professor of Structural Biochemistry at Newcastle University’s Centre for Bacterial Cell Biology, Jeremy Lakey, who leads the research team, said: “The beauty of this is that the ‘tail’ of the protein is very simple and it will be relatively easy to make new antibiotics out of it.  Using the whole protein would just be too complicated.”

But the research is still in its early days. Prof Lakey said: “It’s an early stage basic discovery and it kills bacteria by a new and as yet unknown mechanism, so we need to do a lot more work to discover exactly what is happening here and whether it could be used for new drugs.

“But it is unlike anything I have seen before and one of the most exciting things I have seen in 30 years research on antibacterials.”

Dr Chris Johnson, the researcher who made the key find , said: “When I saw what had happened I didn’t believe it.

“So we repeated it several times and the same thing happened, the bacteria died.

“This was certainly a result that we weren’t expecting. We don’t really know how this is all working so we will be looking at this in much more detail but it looks promising.”