What Will It Take to Wipe Out Superbugs?

Scientists are taking all kinds of approaches to try to stop the ominous threat from bacteria antibiotics can no longer kill

Superbugs are making public health experts very nervous.
Superbugs are making public health experts very nervous. Image courtesy of the Centers for Disease Control

We have a drug problem.

Only this time we need drugs, specifically antibiotics. The problem is that more germs are becoming resistant to the antibiotics doctors have been using for a long time, resulting in “superbugs” from which even the National Institutes of Health couldn’t protect itself.

One reason, as the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) warned yet again in a report last month, is that doctors continue to be overzealous in prescribing antibiotics. Case in point: A new study at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston found that doctors prescribed antibiotics in 60 percent of the cases where people came in complaining of sore throats—this despite the fact that only 10 percent of those patients had strep throat, the only sore throat antibiotics can cure.

On top of that, Big Agriculture aggressively uses antibiotics both to keep healthy animals from getting sick and to help them grow faster. And while all this excessive use of antibiotics is making them less and less effective, the pharmaceutical industry has dramatically scaled back research into new infection-fighting drugs because it’s not a very profitable line of business.

Some public health experts fear that unless scientists are able to develop new antibiotics soon, we could regress into pre-penicillin days, when everyday infections killed people. Even the CDC, which points out that more than 23,000 people in America die from infections caused by resistant bacteria every year, says we could be facing “potentially catastrophic consequences.”

Turning drugs off

There’s the conventional strategy to dealing with the threat—earlier this year the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services committed to pay the pharmaceutical firm GlaxoSmithKline as much as $200 million over the next five years to try to develop new antibiotics.

But more innovative approaches are also taking shape. Consider the research of a team of scientists in the Netherlands. They’re focusing on a way to deactivate antibiotics after they’ve been used, so that they no longer accumulate in the environment, which is what spurs the development of resistant superbugs. They’ve determined that if the molecules in antibiotics can be made to change their shape, they become ineffective. And the researchers have found they can use heat or light to do just that. In short, they’re developing ways to turn off antibiotics before they break bad.

Or take the researchers at McMaster University in Ontario who argue that the typical practice of growing bacteria in a nutrient-rich lab environment doesn’t really reflect what happens when we get an infection. Our bodies can be far less hospitable than that, forcing bacteria to grow their own nutrients. The researchers did an exhaustive search of 30,000 chemical compounds, with the goal of identifying some that block the ability of bacteria to create nutrients. They honed in on three. But they feel pretty good about those three. Now the trick is to see if they can be turned into effective antibiotics.

As one scientist put it, the McMaster researchers went “fishing in a new pond.” With luck, that might be what it takes.

Germ warfare

Here’s more recent research on the battle against bacteria:

  • That inner glow: It’s not unusual for bacteria to attach themselves to medical implants, such as bone screws, and develop into serious infections before anyone notices. A team of researchers in the Netherlands, however, may have developed an early warning system. By injecting fluorescent dye into an antibiotic, they were able to see where bacteria was growing. The process could lead to a far less invasive way to check for infections with surgery involving implants.
  • Thinking small: Scientists at Oregon State are taking yet another approach to attacking bacteria—they’ve narrowed their targeting down to the gene level. That’s seen as a much more precise way to battle infections, one that’s less likely to cause collateral damage. Said lead researcher Bruce Geller: “Molecular medicine is the way of the future.”
  • Say no to drugs: At Duke University, scientists say they’ve developed a blood test that can identify viral infections in people with serious respiratory problems. The test, they say, could significantly reduce the overuse of antibiotics. Since it can be hard to distinguish between viral sore throats, such as those that come with a cold, and bacterial infections, such as strep throat, a lot of doctors still prescribe antibiotics that end up not doing any good. The blood test could take the guessing—and pointless antibiotics—out of the treatment.
  • Now will you eat your yogurt?: It figures that one way to fight the bad side effects of some antibiotics would be by loading up on probiotics. Research published earlier this year found that probiotic supplements reduced the risk of antibiotic-related diarrhea by 64 percent.
  • All this and super lice, too?: Public health officials in the U.S. have told doctors to be on the lookout for a new strain of “super lice” that have become immune to shampoos and medications containing antibiotics.
  • Then again, they are termites: According to scientists at the University of Florida, the reason termites are so disease-resistant is that they use their own feces in building their nests. That promotes the growth of bacteria, which stifles pathogens. The researchers said that their findings could eventually result in new antibiotics for humans, but it might be better if they spare us the details.

Video bonus: Here’s another take on the superbug threat.

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