The over-user of antibiotics is threatening their effectiveness

Antibiotics: the problem

For decades, antibiotics have transformed the medical landscape, curing previously deadly diseases such as pneumonia. However, widespread use is putting their strength at risk: the bacteria they used to kill are becoming resistant to them. Antibiotic resistance has become a major concern among scientists, with the evolution of resistant superbugs such as MRSA suggesting that current medicines could become impotent within decades.

National Institute for Health and Care Excellence Guidelines

A survey commissioned by the Health Protection Agency showed that 97% of patients said their GP or nurse put them on a course of antibiotics the last time they asked for a prescription. NICE has recently issued draft guidelines on the topic, stating that both doctors and patients need to change their habits with regards to prescribing and requesting antibiotics: doctors are being urged to feel more comfortable saying no to patients requesting drugs for ailments such as coughs and sore throats that are either viral or will heal by themselves. A culture of “watchful waiting”, i.e. monitoring the symptoms in order to administer antibiotics at a later date if they become necessary is encouraged. NICE has also recommended that doctors keep an eye on their peers’ prescribing, and has called for an “open and transparent culture” in this regard.

The future of antibiotics

However, antibiotic resistance may not be such a worry in the years to come. A team from Northeastern University in Boston believe that they have made a breakthrough in the development of new antibiotics.

Teixobactin offers a more optimistic view of the future, because of the manner of its discovery and the way it attacks hostile bacteria.

Most antibiotics currently in use were found by screening soil for bacteria which had evolved to fight off their competitors. However, development of these as medicines was limited by the refusal of many microbes to grow in laboratory conditions. The Northeastern University researchers discovered that they could culture the bacteria between layers of soil, and used this method to observe over 50,000 types of soil microbe. Teixobactin was found to be effective in fighting common infections such as Staphylococcus aureus and Clostridium difficile, by targeting lipids in the walls of their cells. This differs from current antibiotics, which instead attack cell proteins. These proteins then mutate over time as the bacterium evolves, reducing the efficacy of the drug.