We’ve reached a tipping point in medicine, sounded by the WHO (World Health Organization) very recently. The over-use and misuse of antibiotics in animals and humans is contributing to the rising threat of antibiotic resistance.
Some types of bacteria that cause serious infections in humans have already developed resistance to most or all of the available treatments, and there are very few promising options in the research pipeline.
However, one enterprising microbiologist in the UK has launched a Crowdfunded campaign to conduct his own search for new antibiotics – which is yielding promising results, reports Dr. Mark McKenna, a physician and entrepreneur who regularly reports on medical breakthroughs.
Dire warning from WHO
WHO is recommending that farmers and the food industry stop using antibiotics routinely to promote growth and prevent disease in healthy animals, states Dr. Mark McKenna.
The new WHO recommendations aim to help preserve the effectiveness of antibiotics that are important for human medicine by reducing their unnecessary use in animals. In some countries, approximately 80% of total consumption of medically important antibiotics is in the animal sector, largely for growth promotion in healthy animals.
Stern words from Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of WHO: “A lack of effective antibiotics is as serious a security threat as a sudden and deadly disease outbreak. Strong, sustained action across all sectors is vital if we are to turn back the tide of antimicrobial resistance and keep the world safe.”
Disturbing report from the American Society for Microbiology
Scientists attending this global meeting revealed that bacteria containing a gene known as mcr-1 – which confers resistance to the antibiotic colistin – had spread round the world at an alarming rate since its original discovery 18 months earlier. In one area of China, it was found that 25% of hospital patients now carried the gene.
Colistin is known as the “antibiotic of last resort,” explains Dr. Mark McKenna. In many parts of the world doctors have used it because patients weren’t responding to other antibiotics. This new report indicates that resistance to colistin has spread globally.
As reported In The Guardian, England’s chief medical officer, Sally Davies: “The world is facing an antibiotic apocalypse.” Unless action is taken to halt the practices that have allowed antimicrobial resistance to spread and ways are found to develop new types of antibiotics, we could return to the days when routine operations, simple wounds or straightforward infections could pose real threats to life, she warns.
About 700,000 people a year die from drug-resistant infections. This global figure is growing relentlessly and could reach 10 million a year by 2050, scientists report.
This is perhaps the greatest danger that humanity has faced in modern times, states Dr. Mark McKenna. According to microbiologists, in a drug-resistant world, many aspects of modern medicine would simply become impossible. The world will face the same risks as it did before penicillin was discovered in 1928. Common infections could kill again.
“Superbugs” have evolved and these rare antibiotic-resistant strains are taking root in farm animals – then spreading across the planet. Tuberculosis is just one example, as it has evolved into a multi-drug-resistant form known as MDR-TB. Once easily treatable, this new strain of tuberculosis now claims the lives of 190,000 people a year.
Microbiologists hunting for replacement drugs in the “dirtiest places”
Pharmaceutical companies have been daunted by the speed at which resistance has spread, which undermines development of new drugs. However, a microbiologist at University College London has taken up the quest. In his lab, Adam Roberts is testing swabs taken from the dirtiest places — a shoe, bathroom-door handle, tree, bench, handrail.
Roberts has built a network, through a crowdsourcing campaign and a Facebook page aimed at harvesting samples from a wider geographic range than he could ever reach on his own. It’s a 21st century version of the drug-company campaigns of the 1950s.
For more than a decade, Roberts studied one of the main ways bacteria acquire antibiotic resistance: passing genes back and forth by trading segments of DNA. Transmissible resistance, as it is called, was described in the 1960s by two Japanese researchers, who noticed that strains of the food-borne-illness bacterium Shigella had become resistant to drugs that patients had never received.
After years of study, he shifted his focus. Instead of focusing on new resistance genes, which were ever-evolving, he decided to focus on uncovering new drugs.
Crowdfunding yields promising bacteria for potential drugs
Roberts set up a Crowdfunded “Swab and Send campaign” which provided people around the world with a sample tube, mailing envelope and basic instructions to swab the least sanitary environs. This approach fired an impressive response: Within two months, Roberts received more than £1,000, and hundreds of swabs.
Roberts reports that since Swab and Send began, he and his graduate students have incubated thousands of bacteria samples. Of those, hundreds have secreted compounds that killed at least one test bacterium. A few have killed a fungus—especially exciting as antifungal drugs are in even shorter supply than antibiotics.
By mid- 2017, Roberts identified 18 promising bacteria that killed the multidrug-resistant E. coli. The biggest challenge is finding bacteria that is not toxic to humans, he acknowledges.
Plenty of microbiologists see the potential in investigating the natural world for new drugs. A group at McMaster University in Ontario has developed a High Throughput Screening Lab for testing compounds. A team at Northeastern University has invented a device, called the iChip, that allows bacteria that do not thrive in laboratory cultures to be grown in soil; its use led to the isolation of a promising compound, teixobactin, which is still being studied.
Roberts has been recruited by the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, to work in a £25 million facility that will enable him to bring together teams from different scientific disciplines to work on new antibiotics.
Any promising compounds he finds can be tested and developed by teams already working within the school. Late-stage trials, with their huge logistical demands, will require a commercial partner.
About Dr. Mark McKenna:
Dr. Mark McKenna is a medical doctor and founder of OVME. Dr. McKenna has appeared on a CBS television show entitled Doctorpreneur which highlighted the entrepreneurial spirit in medicine and healthcare. His latest venture, called OVME, is a consumer-facing technology-enabled medical aesthetic company that is reinventing elective healthcare.