Good op-ed biology: how to make new antibiotics

Today we’re talking about antibiotics, and the scary fact that a lot of germs are resistant to the antibiotics we have.

February 7, 1907
Drugs: big business (click for more info on this picture!)

News source: The New York Times opinion section (Casually, an “op-ed” is an article written as an “opinion” – something someone thinks, although that can be done with as much professional background as any regular journalism article – or an “editorial,” which is usually written by the staff of a newspaper or magazine with the same kind of idea in mind.)

The original science: no single link today; if you want to learn more, please contact me by leaving a comment or the web form!

I first saw this: on the Times website, during my morning browsing

Helpful vocab:
Note: I will use the word germ to talk about anything that can make people sick. This is NOT a technical term, and it’s not actually the most helpful word. I am using it just because I want to make some ideas clear to people who haven’t learned about all the microscopic critters that live on Earth the way I have (I have spent seven years of my fifteen in science so far studying these kinds of fabulous organisms).

evolutionary biology – the study of how living things change from generation to generation

antibiotics – most people use this word to describe substances that kill bacteria, although it is also used to describe stuff that kills other germs (like fungi, which can also make people sick)

antibiotic resistance – just what it sounds like: when a germ does not die when we use drugs to try to kill it

Why this is news: Believe it or not, even though I remember talking about this very idea in a class when I was in graduate school – in 2004, so, eight years ago now – this is the first time I have noticed a statement about new antibiotics that take into account bacterial evolution and human profits in a major news source.

What I want to clear up: Let me take a minute to talk about why I mentioned evolution.

I believe that the medical profession can benefit from incorporating evolutionary thinking. When we use antibiotics, we are introducing a poison into the lives of the bacteria in our bodies. If any bacteria survive being poisoned, then they can start growing again – and now they won’t die when we try to poison them! This is an example of how natural selection works, by the way: the bacteria that were better able to live in this poison-filled environment outcompeted (= had more offspring) than the ones that didn’t.

It turns out that when evolutionary biologists sat down to study this situation, some of them realized that we can slow down or stop the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria if we think about the situation from the point of view of the bacteria. They are just trying to live, right? So one option is to make drugs that make it easier for bacteria that don’t hurt us to grow in our bodies when you compare them with bacteria that do hurt us.

Also, the broad spectrum antibiotics Dr. Nathan mentioned? Those are not really smart, from an evolutionary perspective, because they kill everything – all germy bacteria AND all the bacteria we need to live and be healthy. (That’s one reason a lot of people feel worse when they start taking antibiotics; you actually lose some of your invisible helpers as you eliminate the invaders!) Narrow spectrum antibiotics are a bit better. Have you seen the movie Iron Man? It’s kind of like when Tony Stark flies to Gulmira and his Iron Man suit is able to shoot only the bad guys, and not the innocent people. When you leave the helper bacteria in place, they will also fight off the invaders – it’s not good for them to have some other critters using up all the food!

Dr. Brainiac’s scientific two cents: I really like this op-ed! I think the only improvements that could be made would have added enough words to the article that it would have been too long for where it was published.

Also, there’s a topic that I wish had been discussed: the idea that we can avoid the need for antibiotics AND save lives by helping people get access to clean water. A lot of germs can live in water, and if the water that people use to help wash away stuff we don’t want (pee, poop, blood, vomit) mixes with the water that people use to drink, then germs can move really easily between people who are sick and people who are healthy. If everyone had clean water, we might be able to keep them from getting sick and needing antibiotics in the first place. Worth considering, right?

Scientific questions I would ask next:
– Can we find drugs that are not at all related to chemicals that are already used by germs when they fight each other? (Penicillin is awesome, but using it is kind of like using guns to fight an enemy army that has armor. If you know how to aim right, you can still kill the enemy army, but your guns are something the enemy has encountered before and their armor protects them.)
– How cost-effective are the preventative measures I mentioned above? Can we help people get clean water in a framework that is economically-rewarding? Are there any problems that could happen if we do manage to get everyone clean water?
– Humans are a global population. How can we help each other avoid local germs – especially antibiotic-resistant germs – with us when we travel?

Final thoughts: Cheers to Dr. Nathan for his op-ed piece, which talks about some kind of tricky science in a very nice way! I wish him and his colleagues the best of luck in finding ways to make new antibiotics that are evolutionarily-responsible and able to survive human economic constraints.

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One comment

  1. I just saw another piece in the NY Times that feels related: Questcor Finds Profits, at $28,000 a Vial.

    What frustrates me, as a human being who has many loved ones suffering from rare or mysterious conditions, is the way that we in the US are okay with profit being the motive for business, and business being okay for making medicine. I can’t quite get my head around someone making a statement – even if it’s out of context – that suggests that this drug company would rather risk that kids with a bad kind of epilepsy not get the drug they need so they can avoid being sued by their stockholders. Don’t get me wrong: the article goes on to say that families in need can get the drug for free or for cheap, but it just seems super weird to me that things are like that in the first place.

    Do that many economists and businesspeople really forget that they’re talking about human life? (Am I misremembering my own economics teachers saying that people buy stock in companies because they want the companies to succeed in their not-money-making goals?) How could a stockholder in a drug company be mad that they don’t get a lot of money at the end of each year if the money is being spent to help people get and stay healthy? I don’t intend to be mean by asking this – I really am confused.

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