Antibiotic Resistant Bacteria – Could New Technology Be the End of Superbugs?

Antibiotic Resistance

Recent news from the Centers of Disease Control (CDC) regarding the statistics of infections caused by antibiotic resistant bacteria has caused alarm among federal and public health officials. According to the CDC, every year 2 million Americans are infected with bacteria resistant to antibiotics and there are 23,000 deaths. Some strains of  bacteria are notoriously difficult to treat, but a new technology developed by biologists at the University of California, San Diego may lead to new classes of antibiotics that could finally treat notoriously nasty “superbugs.”

What is antibiotic resistance?

Bacteria are living organisms that can cause infection. Most bacterial infections can be treated with a course of antibiotics which act as poisons to the bacteria. Antibiotics typically work in two different ways. One way is by killing the bacteria directly by causing them to burst open. The second way is by inhibiting bacteria from growing and reproducing thus giving the body’s immune system time to naturally clear up the infection.

There are some strains of bacteria however that can not be treated by antibiotics. The overuse and misuse of these drugs has caused these strains to adapt, survive and resist these drugs. Bacteria like Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), Carbapenem-Resistant Enterobacteriaceae (CRE) and Klebsiella pneumonia can be deadly. These infections can not be treated with conventional antibiotics and many times “last resort” drugs are used to try and save the patient. These drugs are “last resort” because their side affects are severe.

New technology could find novel treatments 

Researchers from the University of California, San Diego have developed a novel approach to developing new antibiotics. In the wake of the CDC report, this news finally gives some hope to biologists searched from treatments to resistant bacteria.

Since the 1920’s, when penicillin was first discovered, bacteria quickly started evolving resistance to these so called “miracle drugs.” For decades researchers have been releasing as many new antibiotics as possible to keep up with the adaptations. As Kit Pogliano, a biologist at UC San Diego puts it, “we are finally running out of the miracle drugs.”

The search for new antibiotics typically involves a throw everything to the wall and see what sticks approach. It has been difficult for drug developers to isolate molecules that not only kill bacteria but aren’t toxic to humans and make effective drugs. This approach could take months, even years to just isolate one effective molecule.

The team at UC San Diego believes they have a new method that would cut that time from months to hours. In an afternoon researchers could test a promising compound and determine exactly how it works to debilitate the bacteria. This information is vital to determining if a molecule could be developed into an effective antibiotic.

Researchers at UC San Diego will use this new technology to identify compounds that effectively treat antibiotic resistant bacteria and develop those compounds into new antibiotics. San Diego biologist Joseph Pogliano says “this method will allow us to more quickly identify chemicals that kill bacteria, which will accelerate the development of new medicines. Understanding how antibiotics work is key to understanding how they evolve resistance.”

The era of superbugs may not be over yet, but researchers finally have the tools that could combat the threat of antibiotic resistance bacteria.

Written by: Gina Buss, MBS

Sources: Threat Report 2013 Biologists Develop New Method for Discovering Antibiotics

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

Image Source: NIAID