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Science Making History
Published in The Saudi Gazette on 31 - 01 - 2015


Discovery of a New Antibiotic

Amal Al-Sibai
Saudi Gazette


Suffering from common cold and flu is not fun. It leaves you feeling absolutely miserable, with a sore throat, stuffy nose, itchy eyes, cough, fever, chills, aches and pains, and just an overall feeling of ‘leave me alone, I just want to stay in bed for a year.'
The common cold or flu is caused by a virus, and the only cure is basically to let the vile virus run its course. All you can do to alleviate suffering is rest, keep warm, and drink plenty of fluids and herbal remedies like ginger and cinnamon tea with honey.
Using antibiotics indiscriminately for such illnesses is a dangerous mistake.
Antibiotics are the best medicine to cure a bacterial infection; they are fast-acting, they can make you feel better, very soon.
However, taking antibiotics for colds and other viral infections does not work. Unnecessary overuse of antibiotics is helping bacteria evolve into more virulent strains that do not respond to antibiotics.
Frequent and inappropriate use of antibiotics can cause antibiotic resistance, meaning the bacteria develop a resistance to the antibiotics used to treat the infection.
Treating resistant bacteria requires higher doses of medicine or stronger antibiotics. Certain bacteria have become resistant to some of the most powerful antibiotics available today.
Antibiotic resistant infections are costly, difficult to treat, potentially deadly, and can spread rapidly.
Antibiotic resistance is a widespread problem, which the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) calls “one of the world's most pressing public health problems.”
About 25,000 people die each year in Europe from infections that are resistant to antibiotics.
Infectious disease specialist, Judy Stone, wrote in Forbes magazine, “Globally, deaths due to antibiotic resistance are estimated at 700,000 per year.
In the US alone, infections number 2 million per year, with 23,000 deaths due to resistant organisms.”
The World Health Organization has described the rise of antibiotic resistance as one of the most significant global risks challenging modern medicine.
Antibiotics were first discovered and used in the 1940s which were then ushered in as a miracle cure. Between the 1940s and the year 1962, scientists developed more than 20 new classes of antibiotics.
In the years after that, antibiotic research waned, with only 2 new developments since then.
With antibiotic resistance turning into a global health crisis, there has finally been a renewed interest in antibiotic research and development among the scientific community.
As the saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention. The name of the invention is teixobactin, a new class of antibiotic recently discovered by scientists, and the first new form of antibiotic to be developed in over 30 years.
Laboratory tests have shown that teixobactin can kill some types of bacteria fairly rapidly.
A team of scientists led by Professor Kim Lewis from Northeastern University has used the antibiotic to successfully treat mice infected with antibiotic resistant bacteria.
Teixobactin cured the mice, with no side-effects. Professor Lewis said in a report in The Independent, “The problem is that pathogens are acquiring resistance faster than we can develop new antibiotics and this is causing a human health crisis.
We now have some strains of tuberculosis that are resistant to all available antibiotics. Teixobactin is highly effective against tuberculosis.”
What is so exciting about teixobactin is that not only is it effective against harmful bacteria, but it works in a unique way that makes it highly unlikely for the targeted bacteria to be able to develop resistance against this antibiotic.
The mechanism of this antibiotic, scientists explain, is different from that of other present-day antibiotics.
(If you prefer not to get into the scientific jargon, skip on to the next paragraph).
The unique way that teixobactin works is that it binds to the fatty lipids which are essential components in the cell walls of the bacteria.
Teixobactin breaks down the cell wall, the outer, protective coat of a cell. In comparison, all other antibiotics target proteins.
Bacteria are able to develop resistance by mutations in their proteins. So, bacteria are less likely to develop resistance to teixobactin because it targets lipids in the bacteria rather than proteins.
Scientists concede that bacteria will eventually develop resistance even to teixobactin, but because of the way it operates, it will take decades rather than years for this to happen.
What makes the story of teixobactin even more amazing is how the scientists found it. Rather than taking samples of soil to the lab to culture bacteria, they took the lab, a tiny lab, a microchip, to the soil to allow the bacteria to remain in their natural environment, while isolating and studying them.
Professor Lewis and his colleagues invented the iChip, a tiny plate-like device, dotted with several hundred chambers.
The iChip enabled scientists to search for antibiotics in a previously unexplored pool, the 99% of microbes that only thrive in their natural environment.
In the approach reported in Nature, a cell from a different bacterium is dropped into each of the chambers and the iChip is placed in the soil.
The individual bacteria, now separated from one another, grow naturally into colonies. The bacteria are then placed on a petri-dish and covered with the infectious bacteria, Staph.
Scientists look for any empty zone in the petri-dish, which means that the colony below is making an antibiotic that prevents the growth of the Staph.
After screening 10,000 different types of bacteria this way, the researchers found one substances that was effective in wiping out Staph, and they used it to develop teixobactin.

There is reason for hope and optimism, but reserved optimism. It will take a long time for this antibiotic to be available on the market, if it can be proven that it is useful and safe in humans.
In a report in The Independent, Professor Kim Lewis who is working with NovoBiotic Pharmaceuticals said that the first clinical trials on humans could begin in two years and, if successful, the drug could be in widespread use in 10 years.
In her article in Forbes, Judy Stone wrote, “My biggest concern, should Teixobactin make it to market, is that it will be squandered as every other good new antibiotic has been, and so resistance will rapidly emerge as the drug is overused.
Teixobactin has promise because of its novel mechanism of action and its relative resistance to the emergence of resistance—in the lab.
It has a long way to be more than a wish and a promise. If we don't put strict controls on its use and treat it as a treasure, it won't last long.”


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