Scientists fight back against Antibiotic Apocalypse. What you need to know.

The world is worrying about the wrong type of apocalypse. While TV shows such as ‘The Walking Dead’ and dystopian movies have made us fear zombies, we might be approaching doomsday sooner than we think. But the enemy is smaller and deadlier. Bacteria. A war is happening beneath your nose, and the bacteria have been winning. They have evolved. Our drugs are weaker and weaker. But some scientists may have just changed that.  Enter modified Vancomycin, our newest weapon against the onslaught.


Bacteria fighting back

Antibiotics are drugs that kill that bacteria that enter our body. Not all bugs are bad, but some need treatment. Bacteria do many things, but some can kill our cells and us. . You may be familiar with some bacterial infections such as pneumonia, cholera, tuberculosis and sepsis (Check out a fellow writer’s article on how to identify sepsis!) Our first line of defence in the war is antibiotics.

The ‘antibiotic apocalypse’ has arisen over the past few decades due to overuse of antibiotics. We have either misused the drugs, not finished a course or used them in livestock. Those bacteria that survive can mutate and become resistant to the drug. The next time you have the same infection and use the same drug, it will have less of an impact on your body and more of the bacteria will remain alive. The drug is useless, and the bug powerful.

Over time this means we breed our own destruction. Legions of antibiotic resistant bugs attack at our weakest. Serious, untreatable infections are on the rise, and we have already seen the first completely resistant bugs. Some are even in our public transport So, have we lost?

Scientists find a new weapon

Scientists from the Scripps Research Institute are fighting back. They are trying to create drugs that beat the mutation. One recent breakthrough involves altering an existing drug called Vancomycin. Vancomycin is most commonly used with intestinal bacterial infections and it prevents bacteria from forming their own cell walls. However, due to the bacteria’s resistance to this cell wall-destroying pathway, the drug has been failing. The scientists have found a clever way to change the game.

The researchers developed 2 more pathways to kill bacteria by altering the Vancomycin molecule. By creating multiple lines of attack, the drug is more effective.The likelihood that the bacteria will find resistance to all 3 pathways is low. This means the drug could be used for many more years than a normal drug. Furthermore, the new altered molecule is 1000 times more potent than the original Vancomycin. More clever and more powerful. If you are interested in reading more about this research, click here.

What next? Apocalypse or survival?

This new molecule opens doors. We now know that we can alter existing drugs to fight back. But this is just half the battle. The rest will be in public education and measured use of antibiotics. We need to use drugs right. Use the right drug, at the right time, for the right time. We cannot exhaust new drugs because simply put, we just don’t know where the next breakthrough will come from. Altered Vancomycin may be a godsend, but we can still misuse it. The drug enters human and animal trials soon, and if successful, may find its way to the frontline. In the meantime, the war wages on.

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Any opinions above are the author’s alone and may not represent those of his/her affiliations. Any comment is based on the best available evidence at the time of writing.  All data is based on externally validated studies unless expressed otherwise. Novel data is representative of the sample surveyed. An online recommendation is no substitute for seeing your own doctor and should not be taken as medical advice. Article proofed and edited for publication by Dr. BM Janaway.

Sources and further reading

  • “Ultra Tough Antibiotic to Fight Superbugs”. BBC News. 30 May 2017.
  • Okano A, Isley N, Boger D. Peripheral modifications of Vancomycin with added synergistic mechanisms of action provide durable and potent antibiotics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 25 April 2017.

Image sources: Bacteria, zombies, Vancomycin


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