Folmsbee: New antibiotic shows importance of basic science


Sai Folmsbee, Columnist

Basic scientific research is, often by its very nature, boring and confusing. There are a huge number of scientists in this country using public funds to study things so muddled in obscurity that many average citizens — and the occasional politician — simply see it as a waste of money. For example, what good could there be in researching the non-disease-causing microorganisms that live in the soil?

However, a recent study discovered something amazing: an entirely new kind of antibiotic. Given the current scourge of antibiotic resistance, this is quite the momentous finding. And the keystone of this research was not the direct investigation of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, but rather it began by digging around in the dirt for these unrelated microorganisms. Advances in medical treatments make the headlines, but the real breakthroughs are often hidden in the confusing, complex and incredible nuances of basic science.

Antibiotic resistance is an enormous and growing problem. Perhaps the most infamous species is MRSA (Methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus), which infects over 75,000 Americans annually. Although we have been marginally successful in creating new antibiotics, such as vancomycin, to better target these resistant organisms, they only serve to dampen their emerging incidence and differ only marginally from previously used antibiotics. Unfortunately, new bacteria can develop resistance to even these newer drugs over time.

Thus, the push for new antibiotics has been profound, but it has remained incredibly challenging from the research perspective. Developing a drug that will kill bacteria but not the human host is already difficult enough, but these microorganisms have a much more powerful ally: rapid evolution. Many of these bacteria have reproductive cycles that are less than an hour, creating generations of bacteria capable of rapid evolutionary resistance. Clearly, a novel approach is needed.

In this new study, published Jan. 7, researchers looked to nature for inspiration. Like Alexander Fleming, the legendary scientist who discovered penicillin from mold, these scientists utilized the untapped ecosystem of microorganisms thriving in the soil. The prediction was that millions of years of evolution have placed these organisms in a desperate fight for survival, and along the way one may have developed a potent and novel chemical compound to destroy its bacterial competitors.

Through a rigorous screening of all of these organisms, they found what they were looking for. The authors called it teixobactin, which, amazingly, can block the growth of bacterial cell walls. Additionally, it was able to treat mouse models of infections with staphylococcus aureus and tuberculosis bacteria. The authors claim that because of its unique mechanism of action within the bacteria not previously utilized by current antibiotics, resistance to this drug may be unlikely.

We are still far from seeing its use in patients — rigorous clinical trials are necessary to see if it retains its effectiveness in humans. And even if such a treatment does work, only time will be the true test to see if the bacteria develop resistance to it. It is easy to tempt fate by boasting about the unlikelihood of resistance based on molecular targets, but evolution itself is the driving force behind all life on this planet.

From dirt to drug, this research has given us the gift of hope. And although this serves as the charming poster child for scientists around the world, it also illustrates the expansive challenge of such research. These scientists were willing to have their investigation span an obscure soil culturing system and mouse models of disease. This kind of tenacity and flexibility is necessary for these kinds of discoveries. As all research becomes more increasingly specialized, it is easy to remain a comfortable expert in a biochemical process totally removed from any practical application. But without that push toward clinical relevance, much research may simply wallow in obscurity.

We need to know the basics of life: how our cells divide, how our proteins fold and how our chemicals react. But the ultimate purpose behind all of our incremental discoveries is the clinical trial, using this knowledge to create new and better drugs that ultimately improve the lives of patients. This discovery of a new antibiotic may be a huge step forward in medicine, or it may crash as a bitter disappointment. But regardless of the outcome, this research represents the best of modern scientific investigation: a deep look into the obscure coupled with an unrelenting push toward improving patient care.

Sai Folmsbee is a Feinberg graduate student. He can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a letter to the editor to [email protected].