“There is the danger that the ignorant man may easily underdose himself and, by exposing his microbes to non-lethal quantities of the drug (antibiotics), make them resistant,” Alexander Fleming, the man who discovered penicillin, cautioned at the acceptance of his Noble Prize in 1945.
Thanks to the medical-industrial complex and its tendency to prescribe antibiotics for just about every illness, including viruses, bacteria are getting smarter. Becuase we are giving non-lethal doses of antibiotics to bacteria on a massive scale, Fleming's prediction in 1945, is now coming true.
The limited number of antibiotics in the world cannot keep up with the rapid rate of evolving bacteria. The world will soon be in a post-antibiotic era.
"Things as common as strep throat or a child's scratched knee could once again kill," warned the World Health Organisation's director-general Margaret Chan in 2012.
This ominous prediction is now swiftly coming in to fruition.
Currently, 700,000 people (230,000 newborns) die every year from superbugs that have evolved a resistance to antibiotics. According to a British study, that number is estimated to jump to 10,000,000 by the year 2050 and cost the world economy $100 trillion.
"If we fail to address this problem quickly and comprehensively, antimicrobial resistance will make providing high-quality universal healthcare coverage more difficult if not impossible," UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told The Guardian. "It will undermine sustainable food production. And it will put the sustainable development goals in jeopardy."
The outlook for humanity is, indeed, bleak. However, thanks to a handful of research students from the University of Melbourne School, we may have hope after all.
Ph.D. student Shu Lam, the study's lead researcher, believes they've found a way around antibiotic dependency in the battle against bacteria.
"We've developed a new class of antimicrobial agents, which are very unique. They come in the form of tiny star-shaped molecules that are made from short chains of proteins," Lam told VICE. "We found that they are very effective at wiping out [bacterial] infections in mice and they are also relatively non-toxic to the body."
These little miracle stars literally tear the bacteria apart by attaching to it and destroying the cell wall.
"These star polymers screw up the way bacteria survives," Lam said. "Bacteria need to divide and grow but when our star is attached to the membrane it interferes with these processes. This puts a lot of stress on the bacteria and it initiates a process to kill itself from stress."
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"We still need to do a lot of studies and a lot of tests—for example, to see whether these polymers have any side effects on our bodies," she explained to Vice. "We need a lot of detailed assessments like that, [but] they could hopefully be implemented in the near future."
Lam's study was published in the prestigious journal, Nature Microbiology, this month, and has taken the scientific community by storm. This small team of scientists may have just saved humanity from the brink of extinction.
“This research is significant because everyone is worried about superbugs. Suddenly, a lot of people have been telling me that either they themselves or their relatives have been infected, that they have been in intensive care because of a superbug, and that people they know have actually died,” Lam told the Telegraph.
“I really hope that the polymers we are trying to develop here could eventually be a solution,” she added.
Because pharmaceutical companies are more interested in developing drugs that must be taken for a person's entire life, thereby guaranteeing them future income, only one antibiotic, teixobactin, has been developed in the last 30 years.
“Incentives must be found to recreate the prolific era of antibiotic discovery that took place from 1940 to 1960,” said Margaret Chan, the director of the World Health Organisation.
Lam's team may have just created that incentive by changing the face of modern medicine.
Lam hopes her “innovative” research will encourage pharmaceutical companies to invest, according to the Telegraph. “I hope it will attract some interest, because what we have discovered is quite different from antibiotics,” she says.
As the Telegraph reports:
Professor Greg Qiao, her PhD supervisor, says that Lam’s project is one of the biggest scientific breakthroughs he had seen in his 20 years at Melbourne university. But he cautions that it is still in the early stages, and will need at least another five years to develop, unless millions of pounds of investment can be found to speed the process. Cross-discipline work is still required to further reduce toxicity and work out the best way to administer the treatment, whether by tablet or injection.
“The really good news about this is that, at the moment, if you have a superbug and you run out of antibiotics, there’s not much you can do. At least you can do something now,” said Qiao.