A 2021 study released in the medical journal Cell detailed a potential “new” antibiotic that is selective for Borrelia bacteria. The antibiotic hygromycin A was found to have specificity for spirochetes like Borrelia, but, at the same time, it didn’t seem to adversely affect flora in the gut.
New, however, is relative. Hygromycin A was first discovered in 1953. It’s a chemical substance produced by a soil bacteria called Streptomyces hygroscopicus. The bacteria produces hygromycin to suppress competing bacteria. Though hygromycin has intrigued researchers for many years, it’s never been put into use as an antibiotic because it has failed to show effectiveness against any major pathogens. That may have changed with the recent study showing specific activity against spirochetes.
The study was conducted both under in vitro (test tube) and in vivo (live model) conditions. In the in vitro testing, hygromycin A was found to suppress a variety of species of Borrelia and other spirochetes, including Treponema pallidum, the bacteria that causes syphilis, but it had little effect on the major categories of gut bacteria. In a second arm of the study, researchers were able to eradicate Borrelia burgdorferi in mice infected with the bacteria with hygromycin-laced food.
However, the biggest limitation of this new information is that Lyme disease isn’t just Borrelia. Ticks carry hundreds of different bacteria, and most people are found to be harboring coinfections as well. Also, how well hygromycin A performs in human populations (as opposed to mice), the impact of eliminating Borrelia exclusively, and whether it has unrecognized side effects in humans have yet to be determined.
Hygromycin’s safety remains unknown because it was abandoned as an antibiotic after failing to show effectiveness against any major pathogens.
Because hygromycin is currently being researched, its potential cost for the treatment of Lyme hasn’t been established.
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2. Habib el-SE, Scarsdale JN, Reynolds KA. Biosynthetic origin of hygromycin A. Antimicrob Agents Chemother. 2003;47(7):2065-2071. doi: 10.1128/AAC.47.7.2065-2071.2003
3. Leimer N, Wu X, Imai Y, Morrissette M, Pitt N, Favre-Godal Q, Iinishi A, Jain S, Caboni M, Leus IV, Bonifay V, Niles S, Bargabos R, Ghiglieri M, Corsetti R, Krumpoch M, Fox G, Son S, Klepacki D, Polikanov YS, Freliech CA, McCarthy JE, Edmondson DG, Norris SJ, D’Onofrio A, Hu LT, Zgurskaya HI, Lewis K. A selective antibiotic for Lyme disease. Cell. 2021 Oct 14;184(21):5405-5418.e16. doi: 10.1016/j.cell.2021.09.011