According to The Guadian, researchers have discovered a new antibiotic, coined Teixobactin, that could “turn the tables in our war against superbugs”. However, I prefer USA Today’s headline “Scientists discover potentially powerful antibiotic” because it speaks the truth of the matter. If you haven’t heard already, a growing problem in healthcare these days are “superbugs”, or scientifically speaking, multi-drug resistant (MDR) bacteria. These bacteria are resistant to the typical antibodies (such as penicillin) used to treat your bacterial infections (ranging from the common cold to pneumonia). This is because over the years, these strains of bacteria have evolved ways to counteract our prescribed antibiotics. Therefore, the search is on to “arm” ourselves with something these bacteria won’t survive, be it an antibiotic or some other chemical/drug.
In recent experiments, Teixobactin has proven to be very effective at killing MDR bacteria in the lab. Like most antibiotics, Teixobactin interrupts the construction of the cell wall in bacteria, rendering them unable to reproduce. However, this new drug does it by multiple mechanisms that the bacteria don’t know how to circumvent. However potent it may be, the problem with this antibiotic is that it only works against “Gram positive” bacteria, which are bacteria that lack an outer cell membrane (they only have a thick, inner one). This means we’re still on the search for new drugs to counter MDR “Gram negative” bacteria such as E. coli.
What we really should be celebrating in terms of Teixobactin is the way in which it was discovered. Antibiotics are primarily generated by bacteria themselves (obviously they don’t produce ones that they’ll be susceptible to) to fend off competing bacteria in their environment, almost always, soil. However, there are thousands upon thousands of species of soil bacteria, and some are present in much higher quantities then others. So when we try to isolate different bacterial species from the soil, we tend to get the same ones growing on our dish every damn time. Therefore, we could be missing out on thousands of other antibiotic-producing bacteria in every soil sample we analyze simply because they are outnumbered by other fast-growing bacteria on a petri dish. To solve this problem, researchers at Northeastern University created the “iChip”, a device that takes individual bacterial cells from a soil sample, and sorts them into tiny little chambers. They then take the chip and put it back into the soil so that these isolated bacteria can reproduce easily. Eventually, these “isolated bacterial colonies” develop into a big enough population to run tests on.
Moral of the story: With the iChip, discovering antibiotics will now be a much much faster process, since we can isolate and screen a hell of a lot more bacterial species for antibiotic production at the same time. In terms of seeing Teixobactin being used in humans? Well, it will be a few years before we can deem it safe for use in humans. First it has to pass all the necessary human trials.