Canadian scientists have proven that a simple fungus found in a dirt sample is the key to killing some of the newest strains of antibiotic-resistant bacteria known as “superbugs.”
In a study published last month in the journal Nature, a team of researchers from Ontario’s McMaster University described a natural fungal product able to disarm the bacteria’s genetic defenses and allow once impotent antibiotics to work again.
“This is public enemy number one,” Gerry Wright, director of the Michael G. DeGroote Institute for Infectious Disease Research at McMaster University, said in a statement. “It came out of nowhere, it has spread everywhere and has basically killed our last resource of antibiotics, the last pill on the shelf, used to treat serious infections.”
Many of the new superbugs share a gene–NDM-1 or New Delhi Metallo-beta-Lactamase-1—which can disarm the very drugs that were the last resort for previous generations of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. But zinc is required for NDM-1 superbug antibiotic resistance to work. The fungal substance, called Aspergillomarasmine A (AMA), seems to safely remove the zinc molecules, making the superbugs again vulnerable to antibiotics.
But NDM-1 is only one way superbugs survive antibiotics. AMA gives us back a few effective superbug antibiotics, but the resistance race is on. The superbugs relentlessly work around the clock to find a way to get around this brilliant but ultimately temporary roadblock.
Even the scientists who made the discovery don’t expect it to be a permanent solution.
“I can’t imagine anything we could make where resistance would never be an issue,” Wright said. “At the end of the day, this is evolution and you can’t fight evolution.”
Last week, British Prime Minister David Cameron declared war on superbugs. “If we fail to act, we are looking at an almost unthinkable scenario where antibiotics no longer work and we are cast back into the dark ages of medicine where treatable infections and injuries will kill once again,” Cameron told the BBC.
Bacterial infections went unchallenged as the deadliest disease until 1928 when Sir Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin. Without effective antibiotics, even the most minor surgery would be transformed into a potentially deadly event. High wire medical acts like cancer chemotherapy and organ transplant would lose their antibiotic safety net. Common childhood illnesses like tonsillitis and ear infections would strike terror in the hearts of parents. New mothers would again die from postpartum bacterial infections.
No new class of antibiotics has been developed in the past 25 years. Wanton overuse of current antibiotics in medicine and agriculture put selective pressure on bacteria, killing the susceptible germs and leaving the ones with resistance alive. Those “super” bacteria are able to share their genetic material and the resistance spreads.
Once rare, superbugs are now found in contaminated freshwater in south Asia and are invading the rest of the planet like microscopic zombies wandering the earth in search of human flesh.
Cameron is right. This is war.