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New Generation of Antibiotics is on the Way

Updated on December 19, 2017
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Bacteria, the cause of Tuberculosis

Mycobacterium tuberculosis Bacteria, the Cause of TB.   Scanning electron micrograph
Mycobacterium tuberculosis Bacteria, the Cause of TB. Scanning electron micrograph | Source

Breakthrough in Developing New Antibiotics

Research and development of a whole new generation of antibiotics has recently begun and is being carried out in ernest. According to the journal, Nature, Scientists have discovered a way to grow antibiotic producing bacteria in the laboratory, a process that has evaded them since penicillin was discovered by Alexander Fleming in 1928.

Northeastern University, Boston, MA

The discovery was made by Professor Kim Lewis and his research team at Northeastern University in Boston. The bacteria which produce antibiotics are found mostly in soil. Scientists have attempted to sift the bacteria from the soil and to grow them in petrie dishes in laboratories. The problem is that up till now, the vast majority of bacteria would not grow in the lab.

Growing Bacteria in the Laboratory

Colony of bacteria growing in a petri dish
Colony of bacteria growing in a petri dish | Source

Why Do Bacteria Produce Antibiotics?

The types of bacteria responsible for the production of antibiotics live in the soil and are known as antinomycetes. These bacteria utilize amino acids, fatty acids, sugars, and nucleic acids from which they manufacture antibiotics. There is one popular explanation for why antinomycetes produce antibiotics. Many believe these bacteria protect their food stores by lacing them with antibiotics which are lethal to other bacteria which attempt to consume them.

Three Game Changing Discoveries

Professor Mike Lewis and his team of researchers at Northeastern University in Boston made the following discoveries that will change clinical health care far into the future:

  • A method for growing antibiotic producing bacteria in the laboratory
  • Countless new bacteria from which to produce new generations of antibiotics
  • Antibiotics that do not produce resistance characteristics in bacteria

Discovery: Growing Antibiotic Producing Bacteria in the Laboratory

The solution, which the team from Northeastern University developed, was to place the bacteria in a small chamber, sandwiched between layers of the soil in which most bacteria are found. The chambers were then returned to the ground where the bacteria resumed growing and building colonies. Finally, the chambers were returned to the lab where the bacteria actually continued to grow. This was the first breakthrough in the team’s search for a new source of antibiotics. The process has now opened the door for the development of the first new antibiotics since 1987.

Antibiotics Don't Work for Viruses


Problem: Antibiotic Resistant Bacteria

But there was a problem. Antibiotics began to be used widely in the 1940s and have been relied upon so heavily, that the bacteria they were designed to fight have developed resistance to the drug. This has happened to the extent that some bacterial diseases, such as tuberculosis and MRSA, are nearly untreatable. The world is on the verge of potential epidemics of diseases, such as tuberculosis, which had previously been under control. The Dark Ages and the Bubonic Plague seem to loom on the horizon. According to the Center for Disease Control,

Each year in the United States, at least 2 million people become infected with bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics and at least 23,000 people die each year as a direct result of these infections. Many more people die from other conditions that were complicated by an antibiotic-resistant infection.

Do Not Take Antibiotics for Viruses

According to The Center for Disease Control, Antibiotics don't work against viruses. The CDC says that antibiotics-

  • Will not cure the infection
  • Will not keep other people from getting sick
  • Will not help you or your child feel better
  • May cause unnecessary and harmful side effects
  • May contribute to antibiotic resistance, which is when bacteria are able to resist the effects of an antibiotic and continue to cause harm

Discovery: Antibiotics With No Resistance Characteristics

But the discovery of the new process for growing bacteria in the lab was only half the story that was unfolding. After extracting the new antibiotics from the bacteria, Lewis and his team began testing the new drugs against a variety of bacteria such as strep, tuberculosis and MRSA, a life threatening staph infection. The result was that the bacteria causing these diseases were killed by the new antibiotic, named Teixobactin, without any signs of developing resistance.

Discovery: Twenty-two New Antibiotics

Lewis and his team had set out only to discover a way to grow antibiotic producing bacteria in the laboratory. But they ended up discovering twenty-two new antibiotics, one of which (teixobactin) does not lead to the bacteria developing resistance. Further testing showed that in mice there were no side effects from the antibiotic, and test animals were cured of a variety of serious, bacterial infections.

Northeastern University, Boston, MA


Antibiotics for Now and the Distant Future

The long term implications of these discoveries are exciting news to the medical community. As a result of the efforts of Mike Lewis and his team, the world now has access to a nearly unlimited supply of bacteria from which to collect and grow new generations of antibiotics with virtually no resistance characteristics.

There is about a five year period from the discovery of a new antibiotic to it being ready for widespread use in humans. Although teixobactin has been proven both safe and effective for mice, the same testing will need to be performed with human subjects to see if the results are the same. In the meantime, scientists will be collecting and growing large quantities of the antibiotic so that when the time comes, they are prepared to begin testing on humans. After that, they will begin producing the drug for broader use.

A new era is dawning on the medical world. It will be an era of more effective defense against life threatening diseases, a defense that should last far into the future.


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