Battling Antibiotic Resistance: A New Weapon

If you develop a bacterial infection, your doctor will treat it by prescribing an antibiotic, a type of medication that kills bacteria or stops its growth. But over time, many types of bacteria have grown in strength and become resistant to antibiotic treatment. In the US, at least two million people develop antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections every year, and 23,000 people die as a result, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Problem

The problem stems from the fact that it's the microbes (germs, like bacteria) rather than the patients that develop the resistance. As a result, you can have an infection that’s resistant to antibiotics even if you yourself rarely use this form of treatment. Such antibiotic resistance means that the infection can continue to worsen and spread, and this could ultimately lead to a life-threatening public health risk.

Addressing Antibiotic Resistance

"Antibiotic resistance is a growing problem because as resistance to older antibiotics develops, we have not been able to successfully discover new antibiotics to replace them," says Brian Conlon, PhD, Senior Research Scientist at the Antimicrobial Discovery Center at Northeastern University in Boston.

Conlon has been working with other researchers to try to address the issue, but the search for new sources of antibiotics was frustrating: "The environment is incredibly rich in bacteria that we know nothing about, as we have not been able to grow them in a lab using traditional methods," he explains. "These bugs could potentially be producing powerful antibiotics, but we had no way of isolating them."

Creating a New Tool

At least that was the case until recently, when two of Colon’s colleagues—Professors Kim Lewis and Slava Epstein—collaborated with other scientists to develop a tool called the iChip, "a new method to grow previously unculturable organisms and look for interesting bacteria producing antibiotics," Conlon explains.

The iChip (pictured above) is a plastic device that the researcher can dunk into a sample of bacteria to capture cells. The tool is divided into almost 200 compartments and samples are captured inside each of these wells, where they can grow.

A New Class of Medicine

The iChip looks promising, Conlon says: "This technology was put to use to grow thousands of previously unculturable organisms. One of these organisms was the producer of Teixobactin," a new class of antibiotic that kills bacteria; resistance doesn’t seem to be an issue. "This has major implications for the treatment of infections caused by antibiotic resistant bacterial species, such as multiple drug-resistant tuberculosis and Methicillin Resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA)," he says.

Looking to the Future

While the early research is quite promising, more work lies ahead before this new antibiotic could be approved for the public. "It's still early days, and Teixobactin would have to go through clinical trials before being approved for clinical use," Conlon points out. He adds that although Teixobactin is the only example of this antibiotic class characterized to date, other discoveries could be coming down the road as biotechnology companies continue to discover exciting molecules from previously uncultured soil bacteria.

What You Can Do

While all of this is quite hopeful, in the meantime, the best way to protect yourself—and others—from the threat of antibiotic resistance is to be a responsible antibiotic user with the options currently approved for patient use. To do this:

  1. Limit your use of antibiotics. They should be used only to treat bacterial infections. Refrain from asking your doctor to prescribe them for colds and viral infections since this overuse can help to weaken the effect of antibiotics when they are truly needed.
  2. When you are prescribed an antibiotic, be sure to take the medication exactly as directed. Also avoid skipping doses and finish the entire treatment, even after you start feeling better.

If everyone follows these key steps, it can help prevent antibiotic resistance from becoming an even bigger problem.

Brian Conlon, PhD, Antimicrobial Discovery Center, Northeastern University, reviewed this article.


Conlon, Brian, PhD, Senior Research Scientist at the Antimicrobial Discovery Center at Northeastern University in Boston.

"Antibiotic Resistance Threats in the United States, 2013."> Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Page last updated July 17, 2014.

Ling, Losee. "A New Antibiotic Kills Pathogens Without Detectable Resistance." Nature 2015 517: 455–459. Accessed January 23, 2015.