Winning the Fight against Super Bugs
The term ‘antibiotics’ refers to substances that kill bacteria or prevent their growth. Antibiotics are natural substances that are released by bacteria and fungi into their environment to fight other organisms. The use of antibiotics by organisms therefore represents chemical warfare on a microscopic scale. The activity of antibiotics was discovered by Sir Alexander Fleming in 1928 when he observed that colonies of the bacterium Staphylococcus aureus could be destroyed by the mould Penicillium notatum.
The significance of the discovery was however not realized at that time, and it was only in the 1940s when Howard Florey and Ernst Chain isolated the active ingredient and developed the substance in its powdery form, that it was realized that penicillin and other antibiotics could be used as very effective medicines to kill certain types of disease-causing bacteria within the human body. Bacterial infections can be fatal, especially for young children and babies who do not have adequate immunity.
Labeled as the ‘wonder drug,’ the use of antibiotics to combat bacterial infections resulted in a significant decrease in the deaths due infectious diseases such as tuberculosis and pneumonia.
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Antibiotics are not only used to used to treat human ailments but also bacterial infections in plants and animals. After having been effectively used for almost half a century, a new challenge loomed up in front of humankind in the form of bacteria that turned resistant to antibiotics. These bacteria are known as the ‘superbugs’. Natural antibiotics have probably existed as long as microorganisms have.
Certain types of bacteria have therefore undergone adaptation and mutation to overcome the action of antibiotics. These bacteria have learnt to deal with practically all types of antibiotics that are available. They pose a serious problem in the form of diseases that cannot be treated with any medicines. As antibiotics treatment of bacterial infections continues, the number and variety of super bugs are bound to increase. It could eventually come to a pass when bacterial infections become as fatal as they were in the days before the discovery of antibiotics.
This could lead to a depicted scenario in which the very existence of humankind could be threatened. There is, however, good news. A research led by Dr Adrian Lloyd of the University of Warwick’s Department of Biological Sciences has succeeded in unraveling how the super bug Streptococcus pneumoniae develops its penicillin immunity (University of Warwick, 2008). This finding opens up many new avenues of disrupting the process of development of resistance to antibiotics by the Streptococcus pneumoniae specifically and other super bugs in general.
This could enable scientists to restore penicillin as a weapon against these bacteria, as well as restore the efficacy of other types of antibiotics against their respective bacteria. Essentially the study found that a protein called the MurM was at the root of the development of resistance to antibiotics by the bacteria. Very simply put, Penicillin normally kills off the S. pneumoniae by inhibiting the formation of Peptidoglycan an essential component of the bacterial cell wall which protects the otherwise fragile bacterial cell.
When Peptidoglycan is not produced, the protective cell wall of the bacteria is not formed leading to the death of the organism. It had been observed that the protein MurM was linked to changes in the chemical makeup of the Peptidoglycan that was found in penicillin-resistant Streptococcus pneumoniae. The protein MurM has been found to lead to the formation of particular structures known as the ‘dipeptide bridges’ in the peptidoglycan resulting in the formation of a bacterial cell wall that is resistant to penicillin.
“The Warwick team were able to replicate the activity of MurM in a test tube, allowing them to define the chemistry of the MurM reaction in detail and understand every key step of how Streptococcus pneumoniae deploys MurM to gain this resistance. ” (University of Warwick, 2008). This will enable the Warwick team and any other pharmaceutical researchers to zero in on MurM reaction in the Streptococcus pneumoniae and develop drugs to disrupt the process of development of resistance to penicillin.
The result could be designer penicillin antibiotics to be deployed effectively against penicillin resistant Streptococcus pneumoniae. Since the same mechanism works in the development of resistance to antibiotics in other bacteria such as MRSA, the findings of the Warwick University research could open up more fronts in the fight against antibiotic resistant bacteria. Moreover, the researchers have been able to readily reproduce every stage of formation of the peptidoglycan required by the Streptococcus pneumoniae to build up its penicillin-resistant cell wall.
This provides pharmaceutical companies different levels at which to attack the process of development of antibiotic resistance that could lead to the invention of an array of modified penicillin for penicillin resistant Streptococcus pneumoniae. The significance of the new findings can be gauged from the fact that Streptococcus pneumonia causes 5 million fatalities worldwide in children. In the United States, it is the cause of infection in 1 million elderly out of which 7% end in fatalities.
In every day life the finding can be related to arming a conventional missile with a nuclear warhead. The enemy in this case are the bacteria, and the war is not for the annihilation for the survival of humanity. References -01 University of Warwick (2008, March 15). How Antibiotic Resistant Bugs Became Resistant To Penicillin, And How Penicillin Could Work Again. ScienceDaily. Retrieved January 1, 2003, from http://www. sciencedaily. com¬ /releases/2008/03/080312100041. htm