How scientists are preparing for a world without antibiotics

Antibiotics have protected us for 70 years, but now they’re losing their edge. Bacteria are becoming resistant to antibiotics that used to wipe them out through mutations that occur in their DNA.

If this issue is not addressed, it will kill 10 million a year by 2050, costing the global economy $1 trillion.

Those with weakened immune systems would be particularly vulnerable, but everyone is at risk of being infected by this type of bacteria. One reason why this is such a big deal is that antibiotics may end up useless against small infections, say, from a small cut or wound.

Some ideas have been formulated by medical scientists as to how to tackle the issue.

  1. Disarm the bacteria

Bacteria don’t need to be destroyed for them to not cause harm. Attacking the weapons that make them harmful means that the bacteria will still be there, but consequences of the infection won’t be severe, giving the immune system a chance to combat the infection.

If a drug doesn’t actually kill bacteria, there is a less chance of bacteria DNA evolving so mutating to overcome the antibiotic.

2. Get rid of their toxins using nanoparticles

Many bacteria secrete toxins that damage the cells of their host, e.g. pore-forming toxins, that punch holes in cells. Nanoparticles coated with red blood cell membranes draw in toxins that would otherwise attack healthy cells, and theses can serve as a sponge to soak up all the toxins.

The downside to this method is that is very expensive, and also quite difficult to direct the nanoparticles around the body to the point of infection. Since the nanoparticles are foreign particles, they may also trigger an immune response. More research would still need to be done on how to prevent the nanoparticles from breaking down and accumulating in the body.

3. Nanoparticles for delivery

Using nanoparticles, scientists have been able to deploy thousands of concentrated hitd of drugs. This was because the nanoparticle used in this case easily stuck to bacterial membranes and allowed for the release of the drug right onto the bacteria. This then overwhelmed the bacteria’s resistance mechanisms and ensured that the antibiotics could do their job.

4. “Bacteria-hungry” viruses

Viruses that are specialized to prey on bacteria are called bacteriophages. These phages are extremely effective bacteria killers. By genetic engineering, they can restore a bacteria’s sensitivity to antibiotics. Reprogrammed phages can lock onto the gene coding for antibiotic resistance on a bacteria’s DNA and get rid of it.

For the bacteria that have mutated to form biofilm, a protective barrier that antibiotics can’t penetrate, phages can be engineered to chew up the biofilm.

However, again, there are downsides to using these phages. They can pick up the gene coding for antibiotic resistance and transfer it to another bacteria, which of course defeats the objective. As with all of the mentioned ideas, there is still a high chance of triggering an immune response.

This antibiotic-resistance crisis is global, reflecting the worldwide overuse of these drugs.

Using antibiotics on their own was and will continue to be a temporary solution to our longstanding war against bacterial infections. There are issues that come with all the potential solutions, and all of these solutions are temporary –  we know that bacteria will keep evolving whatever we throw at them, so we will always need something new.

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