Kusick: Antibiotic research crucial for preventing resistant superbugs

In the polemic world of opinion journalism, most news is bad news––the opportunity to stand up and cheer rather than sit behind the keyboard and complain is a welcome one. I’ve done my fair share of complaining about the unfortunate reality and looming threat of drug-resistant bacteria.

Finally, there is cause for optimism in a recent study revealing the most important antibiotic discovery in decades. This exciting advancement comes from the antimicrobial drug discovery field that has been languishing for some time. This is in part due to scientific roadblocks and from a grave lack of attention and funding.

There is no “Walk to Stop Antibiotic-Resistant Tuberculosis,” but these diseases are not obscure and will not be rare for much longer without our attention as concerned citizens. It’s hard to overstate how massive a breakthrough the new antibiotic teixobactin is. The Nature article “A new antibiotic kills pathogens without detectable resistance” reveals its most attractive characteristic.

Common antibiotics such as penicillin and amoxicillin were discovered in the span of a few decades around the middle of the 20th century. Their use has saved countless of lives, but has also led microbial populations to evolve resistance at an astonishing rate.

This has resulted in “superbugs,” pathogens that can be a death sentence for an infected person. By attacking lipids instead of the proteins that are coded for by the bacterium’s genes; A New Antibiotic Kills Pathogens without Detectable Resistance teixobactin makes it extremely difficult––even impossible––for resistance to develop.

Perhaps even more important than teixobactin itself is the new method by which it was discovered. The enemy of an enemy is a friend, and most strains of bacteria really don’t like each other. They’re also really good biochemists, so most of our important antimicrobial agents originate from other microbes. New drugs have dried up because only about 1 percent of useful organisms can be grown in the lab, and they’ve been fully exploited. The researchers found teixobactin through novel techniques to screen for and isolate compounds from bacteria in their natural home: the soil.

This research could lay the foundation for a renaissance in “super antibiotics” to combat the rise of superbugs. This is only possible if citizens, public officials and the scientific community rally to the cause. Such a technologically advanced breakthrough as teixobactin is surprising given the inadequate funding for antimicrobial drug discovery. A 2014 study found that in the United Kingdom, only 3.9 percent of the £2.3 billion in funding for infectious disease research was directed at fighting drug resistance.

That £2.3 billion is itself dwarfed by funding for cancer research and other non-communicable diseases, especially considering the massive philanthropic spending on the latter and near-absent spending on the former. Cancers claim lives in the developed world every day, so they garner our donations and attract the most budding scientists. Drug-resistant microbes are maladies of distant countries and the not-too-distant future. Unfortunately, for-profit pharmacological research is not a viable alternative, as antibiotics are notoriously unprofitable.

Tuberculosis killed around 1 billion people over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries. This happened long before we were born and seems impossibly distant. In a 2014 report, the World Health Organization warned against complacency in alarming terms: “A post-antibiotic era—in which common infections and minor injuries can kill—far from being an apocalyptic fantasy, is instead a very real possibility for the 21st century.”

Teixobactin is a promising first step in relegating microbial pandemic back to the realm of fantasy.