For years, doctors have been sounding the alarm that humans are losing the fight against bacteria, that our overuse and misuse of antibiotics has caused various dangerous microbes to become resistant to the usual drugs used to fight them.

Developing new drugs has proven difficult and expensive, which is why a team at a Canadian lab is taking a different approach, turning to old drugs to see if they can be used in new ways.

Microbiologist and biochemistry professor Eric Brown and his team at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont. are working on screening existing drugs and compounds to see if any can become new weapons against superbugs.

Brown explains that the process begins by looking through McMaster’s library of chemicals and more than 2,000 off-patent drugs. Tests are then run to see if any of the compounds show hidden, or “cryptic,” bacteria-fighting activity.

“It’s a needle in a haystack approach to find something that would be a lead for a new drug,” Brown told CTV’s Your Morning on Friday.

Robotic technology is brought in to screen a large number of compounds at once to find these hidden germ-fighting abilities.

“We run experiments to find cryptic activities in these compounds -- for example, the ability to augment the activity of existing antibiotics that might be less effective because of drug resistance,” he said.

The hope is not that they will discover a brand new antibiotic -- which is highly unlikely -- but that they will discover that a drug or compound can be combined with other drugs to create a combination that is difficult for bacteria to evade. This multi-drug, “cocktail” approach is one that has worked successfully to control HIV, though it took years of experimentation to find the combination that would suppress the retrovirus.

Normally, randomly screening vast numbers of drug combinations would take years, but thanks to modern technology, Brown and his team are able to screen hundreds of compounds in a single day.

Brown admits it’s an unusual method.

“Our approach is really to do the weird stuff that’s not done by pharmaceutical or biotech companies,” he said, adding it’s the best way to find drugs that were shelved or abandoned before their full potential was discovered.

It’s been decades since a completely new class of antibiotics was discovered. While some of the antibiotics we already know have been tweaked to stay ahead of resistance, “resistance is never far behind that tweaking,” Brown says.

What’s exciting about turning to old, well-known, already-approved drugs is that it gives researchers the ability to leapfrog the usual drug regulatory process.

“On average, believe it or not, it takes something like 13 to 15 years to develop a drug. That’s from early discoveries to completed clinical trials,” says Brown.

“The clinical trials period is about half of that. So if we can leapfrog over the discovery phases and move into pre-clinical with this sort of approach, it’s possible to cut that time, perhaps in half.”