New Antibiotic Could Be a Medical Game Changer

When you’re feeling under the weather, you can take Nyquil to help fend off the cold or Advil to curb the headache. In the world of Western medicine, people have the capability of treating many of their ailments and infections. However, the scary reality is that diseases can and are developing resistance to existing drugs. The increasing problem of drug resistance means that scientists must work to develop new antibiotics that are able to combat drug-resistant bacteria. Scientists have recently discovered an antibiotic that is being called a “game changer” in this medicinal quest.

The new antibiotic, called teixobactin, prevents bacteria from evolving resistance by blocking their capacity to build cell walls. This antibiotic, when tested on mice, killed resistant strains of tuberculosis, Staphylococcus aureus, Streptococcus pneumonia and numerous other life-threatening infections.

“Teixobactin kills exceptionally well. It has the ability to rapidly clear infections,” says Kim Lewis, research leader and director of the Antimicrobial Discovery Center at Northeastern University, as reported by The Guardian. Lewis and his team are working with NovoBiotic, a Massachusetts-based pharmaceutical company, and researchers at the University of Bonn to discover new antibiotics.

Photo courtesy of AJC1 / Flickr

Photo courtesy of AJC1 / Flickr

The “golden age” of research, the 1940s to the 1960s, yielded extremely successful antibiotics like penicillin and streptomycin. However, over the following decades more drug-resistant strains have surfaced, with pharmaceutical discoveries unable to keep up.

Antibiotic resistance is ranked alongside terrorist attacks and pandemic flu on the UK government’s national risk register, as the UK’s chief medical officer Sally Davies warns that more people will die after routine operations in the next 20 years if new antibiotics aren’t discovered.

To discover possible antibiotics, scientists check bacteria and fungi to see if they are naturally producing compounds that can be used as antibiotics. A bug that can produce natural antibiotics is identifiable because it will be able to kill the pathogens that are introduced to it. However, 99 percent of bugs cannot be grown in laboratories, making it difficult to test what bugs have the potential to yield antibiotics.

Lewis and his team developed a new device called an iChip to solve this problem. The iChip works by culturing soil bacteria in its natural habitat, allowing the scientists to grow and run tests on the bacteria in the lab. The iChip promises to be useful in discovering more new drugs.

Out of 10,000 bacteria screened, 25 new compounds were discovered by Lewis and his team. Teixobactin was the most promising. None of the bacteria tested with teixobactin showed signs of developing resistance and the tested lab mice showed no side effects.

Teixobactin only works against Gram-positive bacteria, bacteria that lack outer cell walls, such as tuberculosis and strep infections. Gram-negative infections, such as E. coli, aren’t affected by teixobactin. However, the discovery of the new antibiotic raises hope that other effective antibiotics will be discovered for these trickier ailments.

Photo courtesy of Amy Loves Yah / Flickr

Photo courtesy of Amy Loves Yah / Flickr

Teixobactin is unlikely to be available for several years. Human clinical trials could begin within the next two years, but the drug would require further development after the trials.

Despite being several years away from the pharmaceutical shelves, scientists are hopeful about the antibiotic possibilities created by the discovery of teixobactin and the iChip technology.

With this discovery, we illness-prone college students can hope that scientists have taken the lead in the race against drug-resistant bacteria.

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