Rescuing the Last-Line Polymyxins: Achievements and Challenges

Sue C. Nang, Mohammad A.K. Azad, Tony Velkov, Qi Tony Zhou, Jian Li

Research output: Contribution to journalReview ArticleResearchpeer-review

156 Citations (Scopus)


Antibiotic resistance is a major global health challenge and, worryingly, several key Gram negative pathogens can become resistant to most currently available antibiotics. Polymyxins have been revived as a last-line therapeutic option for the treatment of infections caused by multidrug-resistant Gram negative bacteria, in particular Acinetobacter baumannii, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, and Enterobacterales. Polymyxins were first discovered in the late 1940s but were abandoned soon after their approval in the late 1950s as a result of toxicities (e.g., nephrotoxicity) and the availability of "safer" antibiotics approved at that time. Therefore, knowledge on polymyxins had been scarce until recently, when enormous efforts have been made by several research teams around the world to elucidate the chemical, microbiological, pharmacokinetic/pharmacodynamic, and toxicological properties of polymyxins. One of the major achievements is the development of the first scientifically based dosage regimens for colistin that are crucial to ensure its safe and effective use in patients. Although the guideline has not been developed for polymyxin B, a large clinical trial is currently being conducted to optimize its clinical use. Importantly, several novel, safer polymyxin-like lipopeptides are developed to overcome the nephrotoxicity, poor efficacy against pulmonary infections, and narrow therapeutic windows of the currently used polymyxin B and colistin. This review discusses the latest achievements on polymyxins and highlights the major challenges ahead in optimizing their clinical use and discovering new-generation polymyxins. To save lives from the deadly infections caused by Gram negative "superbugs," every effort must be made to improve the clinical utility of the last-line polymyxins. SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT: Antimicrobial resistance poses a significant threat to global health. The increasing prevalence of multidrug-resistant (MDR) bacterial infections has been highlighted by leading global health organizations and authorities. Polymyxins are a last-line defense against difficult-to-treat MDR Gram negative pathogens. Unfortunately, the pharmacological information on polymyxins was very limited until recently. This review provides a comprehensive overview on the major achievements and challenges in polymyxin pharmacology and clinical use and how the recent findings have been employed to improve clinical practice worldwide.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)679-728
Number of pages50
JournalPharmacological Reviews
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 1 Apr 2021

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