An end may be in sight for the decades-long drought in the development of new antibiotics following a “game-changing” discovery by US scientists.
A study published in the scientific journal Nature this month reported a new way to grow the bacteria that produce the most important antibiotics.
Antibiotics are chemicals that stop harmful bacteria growing or kill them outright. Today we take it for granted that antibiotics will be available to treat anything from ear ache to life-threatening conditions.
The wonders of modern surgery would be impossible without these chemicals’ ability to stifle infection.
Yet society currently stands on a knife-edge in terms of its ability to use antibiotics effectively.
With antibiotics, we have made war on harmful bacteria. But this is an arms race that works both ways, because bacteria have evolved to block antibiotics’ action.
We badly need new antibiotics. And one of the richest potential sources is soil. A gram of soil contains more bacteria than there are people on the planet. These produce antibiotics to maintain an advantage over other bacterial species, which they compete with for resources.
The difficulties of growing soil bacteria in the lab have hampered its antiobiotic potential. But the US scientists have developed a “soil hotel” that recreates soil’s chemistry for its bacterial inhabitants. This has identified 25 new antibiotics.
One, named teixobactin, cured a deadly dose of drug resistant bacteria in mice. This latest discovery vividly highlights two important characteristics of capitalism.
Its continual dynamism makes exciting new developments possible, such as technologies that allow us to harvest previously untapped natural resources.
However, we also must consider how we have got into the current mess. To some extent, antibiotic resistance is a natural consequence of Darwinian “survival of the fittest”. But it has been greatly exacerbated by the unplanned nature of capitalism and the profit motive that drives it.
Two acknowledged causes behind antibiotic resistance are GPs inappropriately prescribing antibiotics, and patients not completing their course of treatment which allows some bacteria to survive.
Yet a less recognised problem is the abuse of antibiotics in intensive farming. Amazingly, ten times more antibiotics are used in agriculture than in medicine as a quick-fix to suppress disease in farm animals kept in unsanitary conditions.
But there is a price to pay—bacteria that become resistant in animals can be transferred to humans. Meanwhile, the spread of superbugs in hospitals has been directly linked to the privatisation of hospital cleaning services, as hygiene standards are compromised to cut costs.
At the same time, what has been called the “discovery void” in antibiotic research in the pharmaceutical industry is not only due to technical reasons.
The drug companies do not consider antibiotics to be sufficiently profitable. With so much at stake, we should welcome new scientific discoveries.
But we should also demand proper state funding for antibiotic research and development, and end dangerous practices that threaten to take us back to the dark ages of medicine.