New research supported by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has blocked staph infections in mice using a drug previously tested in clinical trials as a cholesterol-lowering agent, the NIH reports.

The novel approach, described in the February 14 online edition of Science, could offer a new direction for therapies against a bacterium that's becoming increasingly resistant to antibiotics, according to the NIH.

While still preliminary, the research results offer “a promising new lead for developing drugs to treat a very timely and medically important health concern,” said NIH Director Elias A. Zerhouni, M.D.

The work was supported by three NIH components: the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

A pigment similar to the one that gives carrots their color turnsStaphylococcus aureus("staph") golden. In the bacterium, this pigment acts as an antioxidant to block the reactive oxygen molecules the immune system uses to kill bacteria.

Researchers had speculated that blocking pigment formation in staph could restore the immune system's ability to thwart infection. Eric Oldfield, Ph.D., of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, noted how in 2005 University of California, San Diego microbial researchers knocked out a gene in staph's pigment-making pathway to create colorless — and less pathogenic — bacteria.

Oldfield, senior author of theSciencepaper, noticed that the metabolic pathway was similar to the one for the production of cholesterol in humans. He wondered if any of the many cholesterol-lowering drugs already on the market and in development could turn staph colorless and make them once again susceptible to the immune system.

Colleagues in Taiwan determined the structure of the enzyme that triggers the first critical step in staph's pigment formation and observed similarities to an enzyme involved in human cholesterol production. They also captured the structures of several cholesterol-lowering drugs bound to the bacterial enzyme.

The NIH researchers tested eight different drug compounds that act on the human cholesterol enzyme. Three blocked pigment production in laboratory tests. When the researchers treated mice infected withS. aureuswith one of the compounds, the bacterial population was reduced by 98 percent.

Because the approach reduces the virulence of the bacteria by stopping pigment production, it may not cause selective pressures on the population, which can lead to antibiotic resistance. It also targets onlyS. aureus, possibly reducing side effects.

"This is an entirely new approach that seems to work in animals, and now we need to take the next step to explore if it will work in humans," said Oldfield.