Antibiotic-resistant superbugs may be the gravest threat to human health in the 21st century. After over-prescribing antibiotics for decades, multiple strains of bacteria are now immune to treatment. Millions of people are infected with these superbugs every year in the US, and tens of thousands die. And that’s just the beginning. We may be in the early stages of the post-antibiotic era, and if this trend isn’t reversed, superbugs may be killing more people than cancer does by the year 2050.
As you might expect, the scientific community has been desperately trying to find a solution to this crisis for some time. And fortunately, scientists have made some significant progress in recent years. In 2016 for instance, researchers from the Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts discovered Teixobactin, the first antibiotic to be found in nearly 30 years. And with that discovery, they figured out an entirely new avenue of research that could bring about many more antibiotics in the near future.
Of course, that doesn’t really solve the problem with antibiotic resistant superbugs when you think about it. It only serves to kick the can down the road. It’s entirely possible that any new antibiotic that is brought to market, will be thoroughly abused by the medical and agricultural communities. New resistant strains of bacteria will emerge, and we’ll be back to square one.
What we really need is a whole new approach to using antibiotics and treating bacterial infections. Preferably, something that bacteria can’t readily adapt to. Fortunately, a researcher by the name of Dr. Bruce Geller has come up with a new treatment method that might just fit the bill.
“Bacteria will develop resistance to any one antibiotic or antimicrobial given enough time,” says Dr. Bruce Geller, a professor of microbiology at Oregon State University. “Because they’ve had a 4 billion year head start in the evolution of mechanisms to adapt to changing environments, they’re very, very good at getting around any antimicrobial they might encounter.”
So rather than just coming up with a new antibiotic, which bacterial strains would surely become immune to, he’s developed a compound that when exposed to bacteria, eliminates their resistance to antibiotics.
Geller’s megaweapon is a PPMO designed to neutralize resistance mechanisms in bacteria, leaving them vulnerable to antibiotics. “This molecule can restore sensitivity to standard, already-approved antibiotics in bacteria that are now resistant to those antibiotics,” Geller says, which eliminates the need to invest time and money in developing new antibiotics. So how does this PPMO work?
A PPMO is a type of synthetic molecule that mimics DNA and can bind to the ribonucleic acid (RNA) of a cell. RNA takes the information stored in the DNA of a cell, translating it into proteins that carry out the various functions of that cell.
Imagine a gene as instructions, written in a letter. Normally, the RNA receives this letter and carries out the instructions, creating the appropriate proteins. The PPMO instead intercepts the letter along the way, replacing it with one that commands the RNA to do nothing. So Geller’s team can create a PPMO that binds to the gene that produces NDM-1 — an enzyme that neutralizes antibiotics — and silences it. Suddenly, the bacterium has no defense mechanism.
Of course, PPMOs aren’t a broad, perfect solution. For instance, Geller points out that a different kind of PPMO would have to be developed for each type of infection. So this method will be mainly used when a doctor knows exactly what is afflicting a patient. Despite that, what Dr. Geller has created is probably the best solution to antibiotic resistance that has been developed so far, and is the best hope we have to stem the tide of the superbugs.