Scientists were able to use a couple of membranes and a pile of dirt to unearth some good news on the antibiotic front this month—and anyone following the current state of antibiotic effectiveness knows good news is needed.
Health officials have warned of a bleak outlook in the antibiotic arena for some time now. Misuse and overuse of the drugs—combined with flagging interest (and profit) in antibiotic research—have led to bacteria mounting something of a comeback against modern medicine. With diseases such as staph, strep, and tuberculosis more frequently mutating into drug-resistant forms, scientists are going to have to play dirty to keep the upper hand.
“Pathogens are acquiring resistance faster than we can introduce new antibiotics, and this is causing a human health crisis,” Northeastern University biochemist Kim Lewis told Smithsonian Magazine.
Lewis and a team of researchers, though, have developed a technique that might just deliver the one-two punch needed to quell that crisis.
One difficulty in creating antibiotics is that most are derived from organisms that live in soil and plants. Over the years scientists have mined most of the easily accessed compounds, but now that diseases are able to overcome them it’s becoming difficult to find alternatives. The fact that they aren’t easily grown in labs adds to the problem.
“The majority of bacteria on this planet are 'uncultured,' meaning they don't grow on our petri dishes,” Lewis told NPR. “And when I'm talking about 'the majority,' it is 99 percent.”
Lewis and his team created a device that uses two thin membranes that isolate bacteria-rich soil from the soil in which it originated. By allowing organisms in the dirt to flourish independently, the device essentially tricks the bacteria into thinking it’s growing under natural conditions—scientists can then later cultivate them in lab setting, Lewis said.
The gizmo was able to churn out more than two dozen compounds that could be useful in creating antibiotics—including one called teixobactin that might just be unbeatable. Teixobactin is different in that it affects portions of bacteria cell walls that don’t mutate. That means bacteria have less opportunity to fight back.
Still, even a star player like teixobactin probably won’t be able to carry the team indefinitely though. What we need is a change in game plan, according to world health leaders.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have indicated that the path we’re currently on will lead us back to the dark ages of medicine. England’s top health official has likened the situation to a “ticking time bomb” on par with a “risk as big as terrorism.” The World Health Organization released a 275-page global report on antibiotic resistance in April that also outlined a grim future.
“Without urgent, coordinated action by many stakeholders, the world is headed for a post-antibiotic era, WHO Assistant Director-General for Health Security Keiji Fukuda stated.
To avoid that future, the WHO recommends that individuals be more responsible when taking antibiotics and follow instructions closely. Health workers should focus on disease prevention and only prescribe the drugs when absolutely necessary. And policymakers also need to do more to support research like Lewis’.
“Unless we take significant actions to improve efforts to prevent infections and also change how we produce, prescribe and use antibiotics, ”Fukuda stated, “the world will lose more and more of these global public health goods and the implications will be devastating.”