MIAMI, FL -- Researchers from Florida International University's Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine have reported the discovery of a new broad-spectrum antibiotic found in rice paddies that holds the potential of being a new treatment for antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
The arsenic-containing antibiotic is called arsenothricin or AST. It was discovered by researchers from FIU's Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine as part of an international team.
"My collaborator in Japan found that bacteria that grow in rice fields, which are often contaminated with arsenic, make this compound," according to Distinguished University Professor Barry P. Rosen of Florida International University.
"They didn't know whether it had any biological function," Rosen, a biologist, told Patch shortly after the discovery was announced by university officials in Miami.
My laboratory showed that it is, in fact, a very effective broad-spectrum antibiotic," he said. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that around 2 million people in the United States are infected with drug-resistant bacteria every year resulting in 23,000 deaths.
The World Health Organization also warns that a growing number of infections such as pneumonia, tuberculosis, gonorrhea, and salmonellosis are becoming more difficult to treat as antibiotics become less effective.
"We are running out of tools to fight these diseases. We need a new potent antibiotic to solve this problem," added Masafumi Yoshinaga, the other co-senior author along with Rosen "We showed that this new novel arsenic compound can be a potent antibiotic."
Also part of the research team were Venkadesh Sarkarai Nadar and others from the Department of Cellular Biology and Pharmacology as well as Satoru Ishikawa and Masato Kuramata from the Institute for Agro-Environmental Sciences, NARO in Japan.
A study on the work was published in Nature's Communication Biology.
"The antibiotic, arsinothricin or AST, is a natural product made by soil bacteria and is effective against many types of bacteria, which is what broad-spectrum means," said Rosen. "Arsinothricin is the first and only known natural arsenic-containing antibiotic, and we have great hopes for it."
Researchers said that the compound was shown not to kill human cells in tissue cultures.
"People get scared when they hear the word arsenic because it can be a toxin and carcinogen, but the use of arsenicals as antimicrobials and anti-cancer agents is well established," said Rosen.
Arsenicals are used to treat tropical diseases, preventing infectious diseases in poultry and as a chemotherapeutic treatment for leukemia, building on the work of Paul Erlich, who won the 1908 Nobel Prize in medicine after finding an arsenic-based cure for syphilis. 
Researches found the new antibiotic to be "very effective" against E. coli, which can cause severe intestinal infections; the "last resort antibiotic" carbapenem-resistant Enterobacter cloacae, responsible for increasing infections in neonatal and intensive care units, and one of the WHO-designated priority pathogens.
It also worked against Mycobacterium bovis, which causes tuberculosis in cattle. That could suggest a possible use against human tuberculosis.
The team hopes to get a patent for its discovery and work with the pharmaceutical industry to develop the compound into a drug. The process may take as long as a decade with no guarantees of success.
"More than 90% of potential drugs fail in clinical trials," Rosen acknowledged.
He said some people have difficulty understanding how an arsenic-based compound can lead to beneficial outcomes.
"It's like Jeff Goldblum says in Jurassic Park: 'Life, uh, finds a way,'" Rosen explained.
He said most organisms just try to survive arsenic, which tops the EPA's toxic substance priority list because it is the most prevalent toxic substance in the environment.
"This bacterium, in contrast, has found a way to use it as a weapon against other bacteria in the continual battle for dominance in microbial warfare," Rosen told Patch.