Scientists searching for a solution to ever-resistant, infection-causing bacteria may have found an answer much closer to home than expected — up our noses.
Researchers from the University of Tubingen in Germany have discovered that a nose-dwelling bacteria, Staphylococcus lugdunensis, produces a chemical called lugdunin. The chemical is “bactericidal against major pathogens,” and — crucially — not prone to developing a resistance in the bugs that it kills.
“Despite the urgent need for new antibiotics that are effective against resistant bacteria, very few compounds are in development,” the research, published in the scientific journal Nature says, adding that the majority of the ones that are are rehashes of existing antibiotics.
While antibiotics have been credited with revolutionizing the field of medicine, their use comes at a price.
Many pathogens have developed a resistance to our current stock of weaponry, rendering them ever-less effective and in some cases — such as the so-called “superbug” MRSA, or Staphylococcus aureus — can be life-threatening.
So life-threatening that one of the researchers who authored the study, Andreas Peschel, says he expects that in 10 years, more people will die of diseases caused by resistant bacteria than cancer.
While many of our current antibiotics have their roots in nature — soil microbes, for example, have been replicated in the pursuit of infection-busting drugs — the human body hasn’t fully been mined for its microbiota, which could provide potential protection against pathogens.
“We’ve come up with a new concept,” Peschel said in a news conference. “It was totally unexpected to find a human-associated bacterium to produce a real antibiotic.”
Rise of the superbug?
Scientists have long warned that the efficacy of our existing antibiotics is failing, and that we may be faced with a losing battle against infections.
This year the U.S. recorded its first two cases of superbugs — in May, a 49-year-old Pennsylvania woman showed the presence of a rare kind of E. coli infection, the first known case of its kind in the United States.
The superbug is resistant to many antibiotics, even Colistin, which doctors use as a last resort when other antibiotics fail.
Earlier this month, scientists identified the resistant strain of E.coli in a patient in New York.
“The fear is that (mcr-1, the gene which enables bacteria to stand up against drugs) will transfer to bacteria that are already resistant to most other antibiotics,” explained Patrick McGann, chief of molecular research and diagnostics at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research.
Superbugs cause an estimated 700,000 deaths every year. If no action is taken, scientists say these numbers could rise dramatically, causing more deaths than cancer by 2050. A lack of effective antibiotics would mean common procedures such as treating wounds, giving birth and undergoing surgery could become fatal.
“Drug-resistant pathogens are notorious globe-trotters,” Dr. Margaret Chan, director-general of the World Health Organization, said. Chan explained how global trade in food, transportation and medical tourism contribute to the international spread of hospital-acquired infections that may be resistant to multiple drugs.
“I view this as not something we should be scared about, but it’s a warning that we really need to invest in new antibiotics,” James Kirby, an associate professor of pathology at Harvard Medical School, told CNN earlier this month.
“It’s time we think carefully about how we interact with our environment, the drugs we use in animals and the drugs we use in humans, he said, adding that we should develop a multipronged approach to deal with antibiotic resistance “ahead of when it becomes a disaster.”