Man’s relationships with bacteria exists in a fine balance. Within and on our bodies are more bacteria that we know what to do with. They help us live and function and without them we would be lost.
But our bacterial friends can turn on us quickly, and over the years we have helped them become better and live longer. In fact we have done so well that we are running out of things to use when we don’t even want them around anymore. To understand this health crisis, we must first understand where it came from to begin with….
Beer is good
Most people don’t realize just how important bacteria are. We depend on bacteria for countless functions in our daily lives. They help us break down and digest food, and are even part of the foods we eat on a day-to-day basis like beer, cheese, and bread.
I help you, you eat me
Our symbiotic relationship goes back centuries, but all that glitters isn’t gold and not all bacteria mean us well. Open cuts, an imbalance of our friendly native bacteria or a series of unfortunate events can cause us to be hosts to unwanted guests. These bacteria have resulted, in recent years anyway, in a host of dangerous and even deadly infections…
Get by with a little help….
For most of these infections our body can fight them off. The immune system is actually pretty good at that, but there are times when we need a little bit of help. We find that help in additional bacteria that we introduce to kill off the baddies: antibiotics.
Should have packed lysol
Before the 1940’s though, that wasn’t really an option. This was during World War 2 and advances in medicine were taking leaps and bounds. We had wounded troops on the front lines who were getting infections from the conditions they were fighting in. Infections in the battlefield were often much, much worse than they would have been otherwise…
Panic is the mother of invention
In the past, many of these infections would have taken the life of the soldier or if they were lucky it would only result in the removal of the affected part of the body. Even the smallest gunshot could result in lost limbs or septic blood. However innovation and revolutionary discovery would save many of their lives.
In Mold We Trust
In 1928, Alexander Fleming made his groundbreaking and mostly ignored discovery. Like many scientific breakthroughs in that era, the discovery of penicillin was an accident. It was Fleming’s remarkable find that would lead to the way our modern doctors fight everything from earaches to Staph infections.
Fleming’s discovery was the result of an unplanned experiment in which he unknowingly left a petri dish uncovered by a window. By the next day the tell-tale blue green growth of Penicillium chrysogenum had started to cover the dish killing the bacteria on the plate.
Talk To Me
Those of the greatest intelligence are often lampooned as awkward nerds with no social skills, and thought this isn’t always the case…it sometimes can be. His breakthrough discovery went mostly unnoticed for 10 years because of general disinterest by his colleagues along with his lack of communication skills. It did not make spreading the word very easy…
It wasn’t until a team of pathologists began to run more extensive testing that penicillin entered the market. From those early days in a pathology lab the use of penicillin exploded. It was sent oversees to our troops in the trenches, at home in our towns, and around the world for everyone. These microscopic organisms are everything we though we’d ever need.
But the miracle that was penicillin was taken for granted and the drug was given for many ailments. Sometimes even ailments that could have been healed without its assistance. Unfortunately for us, bacteria are much better at adaptation than we are. The constant use and over prescription have lead to other problems…
They might wear a cape
Today one of the biggest challenges we face as a society is the rise of the super bug! Multi-resistant bacteria that are quickly becoming immune to known treatments are rapidly becoming a public health crisis. These bugs can result in rapid sepsis, spreading infections, and most of the time, death.
The S is for Screwed
These bugs pose serious health risks, and could one day be the end of us. Each year they take the lives of hundreds of people in the United States alone and the numbers are even higher in other countries. Third world countries, who already have their own problems getting decent healthcare, often end up with the most extreme cases of these monster infections…
Old Dog, Dumb Trick
Unfortunately, there have been no new antibiotics developed and placed on the market within the last 40 years. If that seems like a long time for them to invent a new type of medicine, don’t worry, you’re not mad, it is. Each “new” drug has simply been an iteration of the generation before it but as the years go on the usefulness of these medications are continually decreasing.
Science to the Rescue!
There are solutions on the horizon though, and not all hope is lost. While big pharmaceutical companies aren’t spending a lot of time working on this public health crisis, the academic sector is hard at work trying to find a way to save the human race from it’s own folly….
The Feds Like Science…. Sometimes
Even amongst the unmitigated abuse of these prescription drugs. Funded through grants by the NIH small labs at universities are seeking to work on a solution to this problem. Recently the Lewis laboratory from Northeastern University in Boston thinks they may have an answer to this self-made health crisis.
Who needs a cell wall
The work, published in ‘Nature’ in 2015, shows promise of a novel polypeptide antibacterial compound isolated from bacterium found in soil samples. The compound, tiexobactin, was tested on a cellular assay and displayed similar activity as vancomycin. What this means in layman’s terms is that microbugs from the dirt may be the key to healing the ones that affect our blood…
Shipping up to Boston
The team from the Lewis lab, using an auto synthesizer were able to develop the first total synthesis of the natural product as well as confirming its activity on a broad spectrum of pathogens. The total synthesis is a key and important step to ensure an adequate supply for the market while also opening the door to more research.
From here the group will have to take their data and compounds to the FDA for approval. Hopefully the administration will take the initiative and fast track the compound to cut down on the testing time and rush its mass production. Which company will end up being the major production source has not been named however.
Tea and Meds
Time is ticking but it isn’t over and we still have tools up our sleeve. Even with this new breakthrough drug, analogs have already been made in the United Kingdom to help create the next generation and keep us fighting for years to come. If we can work together, we may save ourselves yet.
While we can all take a moment to take a breath that new treatments are forthcoming, we should remember what got us here to begin with and take care to avoid it in the future. Miracles happen but we can’t rely on them to bail us out every time.