A catheter coated with antimicrobial peptides saves you from healthcare-associated infections

Natural plants can have surprising hidden properties. Researchers in Oulu found small fragments of an antibacterial protein, also known as peptides, in a microbe living in crowberry. The peptides are powerful enough to defeat superbugs. Peptide-coated catheters can be used to prevent nasty urinary tract infections. Chain Antimicrobials Oy is a company founded on the basis of this innovation, and it is targeting the global market.

Urinary tract infections are considered annoying but relatively harmless ailments. However, more than 6,000 people die of urinary tract infections in Europe each year. Fatal UTIs are most often a consequence of a severe bacterial infection acquired during hospital treatment, originating from long-term catheter use. Superbacteria hiding in hospitals are resistant to commonly used antibiotics.

“In long-term use, a biofilm is formed on the surface of a urinary catheter; this refers to microbial growth that binds tightly with the material,” says Dr. Tejesvi Mysore, Chief Executive Officer of Chain Antimicrobials Oy.

Biofilms are a substantial problem in medicine because they contribute to some 80 percent of all human infections. Bacteria growing in biofilms are 10 to 1,000 times more resistant to factors such as antibiotics compared to freely growing bacteria, and for this reason, it is difficult to destroy biofilms.

“We are developing a peptide coating for catheters to prevent biofilm formation,” says Tejesvi Mysore. “The same technology can be subsequently used for other medical instruments where biofilm formation is a problem, such as intubation tubes and various kinds of implants.”

“Based on our laboratory studies, peptide coating reduces bacterial attachment on the catheter by 30 to 70 percent compared to a regular catheter.”

Antibiotic-resistant superbacteria are a threat to health all over the world. All available means are required in the fight against hospital-acquired bacteria such as MRSA and CPE.

From Petri dish to patent application

Docents Anna Maria Pirttilä and Tejesvi Mysore from the Department of Ecology and Genetics at the University of Oulu, were involved in development of antimicrobial peptides. Docent Mysore Tejesvi worked at that time as postdoctoral researcher in the Pirttilä group between 2008 to 2012.

“It all started with an EU project back in 2008 when we searched for medicinally efficient compounds in local plant species using traditional screening methods. The intention was also to study and develop new screening methods,” says Anna Maria Pirttilä.

“While developing a new screening method we actually found these peptides in crowberry! In my opinion, this is a good example of the importance of basic research: without a high standard of basic research, new innovations are not born,” Pirttilä continues.

“We studied several different species of plants; not only crowberry but also heather and marsh tea. However, the most promising compounds were found in crowberry,” says Tejesvi Mysore.

The useful peptide was found in a bacterium living inside the tissue of the crowberry plant (photo: Juha Sarkkinen).

The research methods of molecular biology are not immediately apparent to a layperson. How can bacteria live inside crowberry? And how do you separate the molecules of the bacteria and the host plant from each other?

“There is indeed a microbiome inside the leaves and stem of crowberry. We separated the DNAs of crowberry and the contained microbes, in this case bacteria, from each other by a combination of various basic methods,” Tejesvi explains.

“We tested the activity of isolated genes and the ability of the induced compounds to kill bacteria, and there we found it: a single antibacterial protein,” Docent Anna Maria Pirttilä continues. “We were dealing only with genes at this stage, the host plant was no longer needed after the initial steps.”

“The protein is quite large and difficult to commercialise,” says Tejesvi. “We cut the protein into smaller pieces and tested their antibacterial ability. We found that a amino acid chain or peptide of 11 to 16 amino acids can kill microbes.”

“After that, we received assistance for commercialisation from Juhani Lahdenperä of Biotech Start-Up Management BSUM. In 2015, we applied for and received funding under the Business Finland TUTLI scheme (New Business from Research Ideas), where lead antimicrobial peptides were developed along with commercial activities,” Tejesvi continues. He was the manager in charge of the TUTLI project, during which three patent applications were filed. Tejesvi Mysore has a total of six patent applications related to antimicrobial innovations.

The road from innovation to commercialisation is long and expensive

Chain Antimicrobials Oy, a company based on the peptide innovation, was born in August 2017. The company currently employs two people. It operates in rented premises in Oulu Technology Village.

“We are currently involved in product testing that is estimated to take four more years before we get approval and can bring products to the market,” says CEO Tejesvi Mysore. “We are now conducting pre-clinical trials, after which we can start clinical testing.”

“We are not selling a product but a technology. Companies manufacturing medical instruments will buy our technology.”

Even though the development of a biomedical innovation is not as lengthy and regulated as the testing of pharmaceuticals, it will still take years and require a heap of money. Good news were received in September 2018 when Chain Antimicrobials got half a million euros of funding from Business Finland and venture capital investor Butterfly Ventures.

However, it has not been easy to get funding. “It is difficult to find Finnish investors interested in biomedical startups,” says Anna Maria Pirttilä with a sigh. Pirttilä knows her business as she has been involved in the commercialisation of four inventions, and has several patent applications pending.

Pharmaceutical companies are not too eager to invest in the product development of new antibiotics either because the expected profits are fewer than those from drugs developed to treat diabetes or cancer, for example. Antibiotics are used for a short time compared to diabetes medication, and the market life of an antibiotic can be short if microbes are able to build up resistance towards it.

Microbes are not known to become resistant to antibiotic peptides so far. It would be desirable that funding be available for the development of novel antibacterial innovations because they are desperately needed in the world.

Text: Satu Räsänen

Main photo: A urinary catheter coated with antimicrobial peptides prevents severe urinary tract infections. Docent Anna Maria Pirttilä and CEO Mysore Tejesvi of Chain Antimicrobials Oy are the people behind the peptide innovation (photo: Juha Sarkkinen).

Last updated: 5.11.2018