Mycobacterium tuberculosis (Mtb) can withstand months of antibiotic treatment. An important goal of tuberculosis research is shortening the treatment to reduce the burden on patients, increase adherence to the drug regimen and thereby slow the spread of drug resistance. Inhibition of drug efflux pumps by small molecules has been advocated as a promising strategy to attack persistent Mtb and shorten therapy. Although mycobacterial drug efflux pumps have been broadly investigated, mechanistic studies are scarce. In this critical review, we shed light on drug efflux in its larger mechanistic context by considering the intricate interplay between membrane transporters annotated as drug efflux pumps, membrane energetics, efflux inhibitors and cell wall biosynthesis processes. We conclude that a great wealth of data on mycobacterial transporters is insufficient to distinguish by what mechanism they contribute to drug resistance. Recent studies suggest that some drug efflux pumps transport structural lipids of the mycobacterial cell wall and that the action of certain drug efflux inhibitors involves dissipation of the proton-motive force, thereby draining the energy source of all active membrane transporters. We propose recommendations on the generation and interpretation of drug efflux data to reduce ambiguities and promote assigning novel roles to mycobacterial membrane transporters.
Keywords: Mycobacterium tuberculosis; drug efflux; drug resistance; efflux inhibitors; membrane transport.
© The Author(s) 2021. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of FEMS.