Antibiotics are losing their potency
Antibiotics: What happens when they are no longer effective?
In a recent interview, the chief medical officer of Britain called antibiotic resistance a “Ticking time bomb” and a threat as dangerous as global warming. In Europe alone, 25,000 people die each year from antibiotic-resistant bacteria and that’s only counting the infections that were picked up in supposedly sterile hospitals.
For more than 80 years antibiotics have been nothing short of miraculous. Capable of stopping the growth of bacteria without killing human cells and thus people, they have turned life-threatening infections into mere annoyances, providing doctors with license to shoot first and ask questions later, and do so safely—or so we thought.
Broad-spectrum antibiotics are powerful fighters with one flaw; unable to destroy every bacterium, those immune to their wrath thrive. With every viral ear infection mistakenly treated with antibiotics, and every healthy cow and chicken prophylactically dosed with antibiotics (which also helps fatten animals), we make these drugs less useful for future generations.
Scientists all over the globe are in a fight with evolution, scrambling to understand the underlying mechanisms of antibiotic resistance and to discover new ways to fight bacteria. Unfortunately, the pharmaceutical companies are not supportive. They have enjoyed a fantastic era in which most of the drugs they create have to be taken for the rest of your life. Blood pressure, cholesterol, Type 2 diabetes, epilepsy and even depression require medications forever. Where is the money or profit in drugs that are prescribed for 7 to 10 day periods a few times a year? Research money has completely dried up in this area. Unless we reduce the use of antibiotics, there will not be any left that work anymore and we will have to find new solutions to fight bacterial and viral infections that are totally outside the box.
In writing this article I came across an interesting case about a woman named Ruth Greenwood. In 1934 at the age of 9, she came up with a clever but short-sighted plan to get out of school: roll around in a patch of poison ivy. She succeeded in getting an itchy rash (and skipping class), but as the days went by, the rash became something much worse. Her legs swelled and broke out in a mass of tender, crimson sores that wept blood and pus. At night, the fluids soaked through her sheets and dried, fusing the bedding to her skin. Her mother scooped her up in the morning, sheets and all, and put her in the bath to soak until the cloth could be peeled away from her flesh.
As she was scratching her flesh, Greenwood made tiny cuts in her skin, allowing bacteria to get inside her body. The bacterial cells multiplied and infected her legs, most likely causing a disease that doctors today call cellulitis. Today she would have been prescribed an oral antibiotic. In fact, an antihistamine and a dose of prednisone would have fixed it even earlier but neither was available at that time. Instead her parents had to rely on the mess of medical hopes and snake oils that filled the shelves of the pre-antibiotic pharmacy.
First they had her sit in the sun for hours on end, hoping the cell-damaging rays would also destroy the bacteria. Later on doctors tried with UV lamps. They fed her laxatives to cleanse the bacteria out of her system but that only made her worse because they destroyed her normal flora (good bacteria). The infection was finally cured when her doctor prescribed an ammoniated mercury cream to spread on the area. The metallic compound killed the bacteria which was susceptible to quaternary ammonium compounds. To this day, the same cream is used for diaper rash (Zincofax and Penaten Cream). She was lucky: in 1934 the death rate for skin infections was about 11 per cent. With antibiotics we have lowered that figure to almost zero.
It is not surprising that some pre-antibiotic medicines are poised to make a comeback. Two treatments, serum therapy and bacteriophages are having and exciting late career, as scientists find ways to make them safer and more effective than their early 20th century incarnations.
Serum therapy works by stimulating your immune system to track down invaders. Made up of antibodies, the proteins that identify and attack invasive cells, serums create a body-wide dragnet for bacterial fugitives. You make a serum by infecting horses and other animals with bacteria and dose humans with the antibodies culled from the animal’s blood. Invented in 1890, serum therapy earned one of its discoverers, Emil von Behring, a Nobel Prize. In Central Park, New York there is a statue of Balto, the Siberian husky that produced the antibodies for lifesaving diphtheria serum that saved countless lives.
Bacteriophages, viruses that attack bacteria, were especially popular in Eastern Europe. Administered just like antibiotics, internally or directly on the skin, this technique was used in post-war Eastern Europe which could not depend on imported drugs from the United States or Western Europe.
When you compare the very broad spectrum activity of many antibiotics that destroy almost everything in sight, serums and phages are downright surgical. Antibodies are incredibly selective about which bacteria they will attack and which they will ignore. Bacteriophages are only slightly less choosey. However, doctors must determine the exact bacteria that are causing the infection and that leads to potentially deadly delays in treatment.
Antibiotics have made the doctor’s job too easy and this has led to our current predicament, their overprescribing and eventual resistance.
With a total lack of interest from pharmaceutical companies, scientists are looking for a return to alternative treatments. By combining old ideas with new technology, there is renewed interest in phages. Some have even been approved to be put in our food supply. Meanwhile now we can make serum antibodies with cloned cells, eliminating the use of real animals in the process. Some of these serum antibodies have been used to treat cancer and rheumatoid arthritis. Clinical trials are underway for modernized antibacterial serums.
If these new methods do not work, we could reach a point on this earth in which bacteria and viruses rule once again and plagues return. Without any new modern antibiotics or any other discoveries, simple bacteria could wipe out millions of people on this planet in a very short time. Let’s hope this never happens.