By Nick Budnick nbudnick@oregonian.com

A new generation of antibiotics to tackle nasty, evolving bacteria could be on the way, an Oregon-led study claims.

Mice infected with Acinetobacter, a bug that has become a life-threatening problem for patients and combat troops in the Middle East, all survived when treated with the new antibacterial agent, according to a study published in the Journal of Infectious Diseases.

Mice who didn’t receive the treatment all died.

The new antibacterial agent is a synthetic substance that mimics DNA strings and can be specially formulated to target even the most antibiotic-resistant bugs, according to the study’s lead author, microbiology professor Bruce Geller of Oregon State University.

“It’s revolutionary as far as antibiotics goes,” he said. “It’s unlike any antibiotic that’s on the market now.”

Geller said the test on Acinetobacter was intended to prove the method worked. Now he’s confident that it does and can be used against other bacteria as well.

However, he said more animal studies are needed before human trials can begin, meaning it could be five years or more before a new generation of antibiotics would be possible.

Federal and world health officials have warned that “superbugs” are evolving faster than antibiotics can keep up, contributing to a death toll in the U.S. of 23,000 a year.

The new antibiotic technology is called PPMO, or peptide-conjugated phosphorodiamidate morpholino oligomer. Geller conducted the study with scientists from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and Sarepta Inc., a Corvallis company that has rights to the technology.

Geller said he consults for the firm but would receive no royalties if the research pays off.

The study was supported by the National Institutes of Health, among others.

2 million people get sick annually by drug-resistant bugs in the U.S.