Scientists gave an old antibiotic superpowers so it could fight off drug-resistant infections, also known as superbugs. CC0 Creative Commons

Scientists say they have powered up an old antibiotic to help in the fight against drug-resistant infections.

The team manipulated the antibiotic, vancomycin, so that it attaches itself specifically to the membranes of dangerous bacteria that cause infections and not to the membranes of healthy cells as well, according to a study in the journal Nature Communications. The researchers call their new creation “vancapticins” and say the molecules could be used to treat formidable illnesses that have become resistant to medications, called superbugs. Those include methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, also known as MRSA.

Superbugs have become a big problem in recent years. These antibiotic-resistant microbes infect about 2 million people every year in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. At least 23,000 of those people die from their infections.

Many factors have contributed to the rise of superbugs, include overuse and misuse of antibiotics — doctors prescribing them when they are not needed and patients who don’t complete their drug schedules, thus exposing bacteria to the medications without killing them, which allows them to build up an immunity to the drugs. People also spread drug-resistant strains to others, helping the pathogens to proliferate.

Vancomycin was one of the antibiotics that bacteria were becoming resistant to.

“The rise of vancomycin-resistant bacteria, and the number of patients dying from resistant infections that cannot be successfully treated, stimulated our team to look at ways to revitalise old antibiotics,” researcher Mark Blaskovich said in a statement from the University of Queensland.

It’s not the first time scientists have developed new ways to treat drug-resistant bacteria. One recent method involves hijacking the signals harmful bacteria send to one another as they invade a person’s body and then sending fake messages that tell them to slow down, like a microscopic form of espionage. Scientists have also looked at ways to break down the defensive membranes of the pathogens to make them more vulnerable to current treatments.

“Given the alarming rise of multi-drug resistant bacteria and the length of time it takes to develop a new antibiotic, we need to look at any solution that could fix the antibiotic drug discovery pipeline now,” researcher Matt Cooper said in the university statement.