A Way Our of Our Antibiotic Crisis

July 24, 2015

By Medical Discovery News

A petri dish

Antibiotic resistance occurs when strains of bacteria that infect people – such as staph, tuberculosis, and gonorrhea – do not respond to antibiotic treatments. In America, 2 million people become infected with resistant bacteria every year and at least 23,000 die each year because of those infections. If nothing is done to stop or slow the resistance of bacteria to antibiotics, the World Health Organization (WHO) warns that we will find ourselves in a post-antibiotic world, in which minor injuries and common infections will be life-threatening once again.

The crisis arose primarily from three conditions. First, when people are given a weeks’ worth of antibiotics and stop taking them as soon as symptoms improve, they often expose the bacteria causing their infection to the medicine without killing it. This allows the bacteria to quickly mutate to further avoid the effects of the antibiotic. Second, antibiotics are over-prescribed. Most common illnesses like the cold, flu, sore throat, bronchitis, and ear infection are caused by viruses, not bacteria, so antibiotics are essentially useless against them. Yet they are prescribed 60-70 percent of the time for these infections. This once again provides bacteria in the body unnecessary contact with antibiotics. Third, tons of antibiotics are used every year in the agriculture industry. They are fed to livestock on a regular basis with feed to promote growth and theoretically for good health. But animals are also prone to bacterial infections, and now, to antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which spreads to humans who eat their meat or who eat crops that have been fertilized by the livestock. The good news is that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is working to focus antibiotic use on bacterial infections and regulate its use in livestock.

An easy solution to this problem might be to create new antibiotics, but it’s not that simple. It takes an average of 12 years and millions of dollars to research new antibiotics and make them available on the market, which is a huge investment considering they are normally only taken for up to 10 days. But there’s an even bigger challenge: microbiologists can only cultivate about 1 percent of all bacteria in the lab, including specimens that live in and on the human body. The ability to grow diverse bacteria is important because most antibiotics actually come from bacteria, produced as a defense against other microbes.

Slava Epstein, a professor of microbial ecology at Northeastern University, came up with an ingenious approach to solving this problem. He speculated that we are unable to grow these bacteria in the lab because we were not providing the essential nutrients they needed to grow. Working with soil bacteria, which are a huge source for developing antibiotics, he created the iChip. The iChip allows bacteria to grow directly in soil, which is their natural environment, while being monitored.

To date, about 24 potential antimicrobials have been identified from 50,000 bacteria that remain unable to grow in the lab. With possibly billions of bacteria left to grow and examine, the number of new drugs awaiting discovery is seemingly endless.

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The Synthetic Revolution in Biology

Oct. 18, 2013

By Medical Discovery News

Synthetic biology sounds like an oxymoron. One word means artificial while the other means natural. Put together, what those two words really mean is a combination of biology and engineering that will allow scientists to harness biological processes for human use. Imagine genetic engineering and biotechnology on steroids.

In short, synthetic biology aims to manipulate cells or their components to achieve a certain result, such as advancing human health, producing energy, manufacturing products, producing food, or protecting the environment. There are plenty of applications for synthetic biology in many important fields. Scientists want to create cells with new and unique properties that are programmed to fulfill a directed purpose. For example, these engineered cells might be programmed to synthesize new biofuels.

One practical example of the promise of synthetic biology is directed at malaria, a disease caused by a single-celled parasite called Plasmodium that has been killing humans throughout our recorded history. Today, it infects 250 million people worldwide each year and is the No. 1 killer of children under five.

Malaria is currently treated by a group of drugs that are derived from artemisinin, such as artseunate, artemether, and dihydroartemisinin. Artemisinin is a compound from the sweet wormwood plant, which was used as a natural remedy for centuries in China. The downside is that this plant must grow for up to 1.5 years before it can be harvested for drug production. Of course, the normal variables of agriculture – rain, sunlight, soil content, labor – also mean that the supply of sweet wormwood fluctuates. Combined with the expensive manufacturing process, the result is that not everyone who is infected with malaria can be treated.

Synthetic biology has the power to change that. Recently, the World Health Organization gave pharmaceutical giant Sanofi approval to produce artemisinin using a genetically modified form of a yeast called Saccharomyces cervesiae. Several genes are inserted into the yeast’s genome to alter its metabolic pathways to produce a precursor to artemisinin. This has turned a simple organism into a “one-cell factory” for a new source of artemisinin.

Now, it will only take three months to produce artemisinin for antimalarial drugs. It will also insure a steady supply and greatly increases the amount that can be produced at one time. About 25 tons were produced in 2013 and that is expected to double next year. And if that weren’t good enough already, each dose of the yeast-produced artemisinin will only cost 25 cents.

Critics of synthetic biology fear a Frankensteinian world of potentially dangerous biological creations. In that regard, the United States government is drafting guidelines and regulations for this new field. With proper care and funding, synthetic biology will yield many new advances to improve lives as it reaches it potential in the future.  

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