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All hail teixobactin

After nearly 30 years, the best news in medical science is the discovery of a new antibiotic.

By: Express News Service |
Updated: January 10, 2015 12:00:13 am

For a while now, the spectre of a “postantibiotic world” has seemed ominous and imminent to those at the frontline of medical care. Nothing would cheer them more, therefore, than the discovery of “teixobactin” by scientists in America this week. In the last 30-odd years, the bugs have had the edge in the battle between life-threatening bacteria and medicine. No new antibiotic was discovered in these three decades. But the indiscriminate use of existing drugs has led to widespread resistance in many bacteria. The bugs have turned into superbugs, while the bug-slayers’ arsenal has been steadily depleted. That holds true of all countries, but especially India, where the treatment of tuberculosis has reached crisis levels.

Anitbiotics are chemical substances extracted from bacteria. They are useful to us because they can eliminate other bacteria. Most of them are to be found in the commonest of substances: soil. But only 1 per cent of those can be extracted, and make the journey from topsoil to lab and the chemist’s shelves. Teixobactin holds out hope for a couple of reasons: because it launches a multi-cell attack on bacteria, it might be some time before resistance develops. Second, the team at the Northeastern University in Boston has found a method to grow antibiotics in their natural environment. They buried a chip, each of its hundred chambers infiltrated by bacteria, in their backyard. A profusion of microrganisms was born, and the chemicals they produce tested for antibiotic properties.

A layer of fungi growing on a petridish of bacteria had led Alexander Fleming to the discovery of penicillin in 1928. Even in his Nobel speech, he had warned against resistance. That danger persists, with the potential of setting medical science back by decades, when a cut on a finger could be a mortal injury. Teixobactin or not, that’s a public health apocalypse that needs to be fought back.

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First published on: 10-01-2015 at 12:00:10 am
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