For years, we’ve been discussing reasons not to use antibiotics and have seen the development of new alternatives, such as spray-on antibodies and internal bacterial combustion. Despite this, antibiotics continue to be widely used today. Scientists at Washington University in St. Louis theorize that antibiotics are here to stay, but perhaps it is the definition of antibiotics that needs to be changed.
The main reason that conventional antibiotics still exist is because they are effective, and no suitable replacement has become widely recognized. It’s only recently that the mythical superbugs we’ve been warned about have become a reality. Dubbed the “Iraqibacter”, A. baumanni is a pathogen that originated in the Middle East and has since vexed physicians with its incredible resilience. It isn’t as widely infectious or malicious as infections like Staph, but the sheer number of different drugs it can withstand is frightening.
Assistant professor of chemistry, Timothy A. Wencewicz believes that A. baumanni is a product of antibiotic overuse. An environment filled with predators - the antibiotics - forces bacteria to adapt at an accelerated rate. Because of this and other dangers of common antibiotics, Professor Wencewicz proposes a new type of antibiotic that doesn’t promote this rapid evolution.
“Antivirulence antibiotics would apply much less selective pressure,” Wencewicz said in a WUSTL article. The vast majority of bacteria are not "virulent", or harmful to the human body. Thus, antivirulence antibiotics target only the malicious bacteria. “If you treat bacteria in a test tube with an antivirulence antibiotic, the bacteria will grow as if there is no antibiotic there. But if you treat bacteria in the human body, bacterial growth will be suppressed. The antivirulence antibiotic behaves like a traditional bacteriostatic antibiotic, suppressing a pathogen's growth until the immune system has time to recognize and clear it.”
How do such antibiotics suppress pathogen growth? In the case of the “Iraqibacter,” the solution is to cut off an important resource. A. baumanni requires a high concentration of iron to survive and uses a complicated chemical gradient to ensure iron flows in. By disrupting this gradient, Wencewicz kills the superbug without harming any benevolent bacteria. He hopes this sort of technique will shape the future of antibiotics.
This work was supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF). For additional information about funding for research at Washington University in St. Louis, read our free WUSTL Funding Statistics Report, available via the link below:
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