Will We Conquer the Superbugs?

January 21, 2016

This week comes news of a new drug refined through a novel process of isolating and growing bacteria.  The drug, called teixobactin, marks an entirely new class of antibiotics developed from a method called iChip, which may fundamentally change the way we discover new antimicrobials. The announcement has some scientists speculating that we could succeed in efforts to fight the emerging plague of antibiotic resistance.

Antibiotic resistance has become such a problem that its potential impact has been driven outside the realm of medicine. A U.S. economist predicted in a report last month that by the year 2050 up to 300 million people will die prematurely if nothing is done to solve the problem. Global GDP is predicted to fall by 1.4 percent by 2040 simply due to resistant bacteria. The chief UK medical officer, Sally Davies, announced that antimicrobial resistance would be put on the government’s national risk register along with terrorism, pandemic flu, and major flooding.

Previously, research into the defences that bacteria produce to protect themselves were extremely difficult to study because only about 1% of those bacteria, which naturally thrive in soil, were successfully grown in a lab. With the iChip method, multiple different strains of bacteria can be isolated and grown, then transferred to the lab to study the antibiotics they produce. Researches Kim Lewis and Slava Epstein at Northeastern University in Boston published their data in the journal Nature.

Teixobactin, the most successful of the many antibiotics tested from the iChip technology,  only kills Gram-positive bacteria making the scope of teixobactin’s reach relatively small. Gram-negative bacteria are associated with higher virulence and resistance rates. Researchers warn that the new drug is far from making it through human clinical trials. But these incremental discoveries can be game changers in the long run, which is why this is such exciting news.

As Angelika Gründling of Imperial College London has written in her article explaining the iChip method, “The greatest developments in science are often not the discoveries but the developments that enable them. So while teixobactin is certainly a remarkable achievement, the new method to grow soil bacteria in labs is an equally important contribution that Lewis and his team have made.”



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