Production of new antibiotics has been on the decline due to the evolution of resistant microbes. At the current rate bacteria are acquiring immunities to drugs commonly used to treat diseases it may soon become nearly impossible to treat even the most basic of ailments, which could result in an increased number of people succumbing to resistant bacteria. Faced with such a dire situation, scientists are searching for new and unique innovations in the quest to manufacture more efficient drugs. There is now research which suggests a colony of ants may be the key in developing new antibiotics.
A study conducted by a team of researchers at the University of East Anglia found evidence leafcutter ants produce natural antibiotics from bacteria inside their bodies. The scientists, led by Dr. Matthew Hutchings, observed the ants were particularly fond of a special kind of fungus. The antibiotics in question were discovered when worker ants would separate some of the fungus from the food supply and rub excretions from their chests on the fungus before burying it. By doing this, the colony was able to ensure the fungus they consume would thrive. Upon further examination, it was discovered the ants’ application of multiple antibiotics simultaneously helped prevent drug resistant bacteria from cropping up.
It remains to be seen whether or not the use of several antibiotics at once will halt the advance of superbugs in people, however. “This is something that human medicine is only just starting to explore,” Hutchings said.
Nevertheless, the team remains hopeful their collected research will pave the way towards finding new and beneficial avenues to work with bacteria. One of the antibiotics produced by the leafcutter ants is a compound known as antimycin, which is known to function exceptionally well against cancer cells resistant to drug treatment. Cancer cells are particularly stubborn because of their tendency to produce proteins which prevent apoptosis (cellular suicide). The antimycin compound produced by the ants is able to effectively render the actions of these proteins inert. The news that ants may be a key factor in developing new antibiotics could be the next big breakthrough in medicine.
According to the Infectious Disease Society of America (IDSA), only one new antibiotic has been manufactured since 2010. There are very few additional drugs currently in production. Steps have been taken by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Center for Disease Control (CDC) to create public awareness of the situation. In 2012, Congress passed the Generating Antibiotic Incentives Now Act (GAIN), which requires the FDA to create a list of pathogens which put human health at serious risk. The Act also ensures any antibiotics produced to treat Qualifying Pathogens (QP) immediately receive review for marketing approval.
Even with these measures in place, it could still take years to procure new drugs for those in need. According to Marcus J. Zervos, the head of the Division of Infectious Diseases for the Henry Ford Health Systems, “It can take 5, 10 years to develop a new antibiotic…and then you get strains that are resistant to those new agents.” Cost is also a detriment since antibacterial drugs have never been the most economically feasible. Ants may be the key in developing new antibiotics, but both scientists and the government are a long way off from putting that research into practice.
By Sam Williams