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Scientists create viruses to combat antibiotic-resistant bacteria

Researchers at Northwestern University have developed a potentially revolutionary approach to combating deadly and antibiotic-resistant bacteria. 

By modifying the DNA of a bacteriophage, a virus that infects bacteria, and introducing it into Pseudomonas aeruginosa, a notoriously antibiotic-resistant bacterium, the research team has been able to prompt the bacterium to self-destruct.

Breakthrough alternative 

The study, published in the journal Microbiology Spectrum, demonstrates the potential of using modified phages as new therapeutics against antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Erica Hartmann, the lead researcher and an associate professor at Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering, emphasized the importance of this development. 

“Antimicrobial resistance is sometimes referred to as the ‘silent pandemic.’ The numbers of infections and deaths from infections are increasing worldwide. It’s a massive problem. Phage therapy has emerged as an untapped alternative to our reliance on using antimicrobials,” she said.

Hartmann’s work involved the use of electroporation, a method of introducing DNA into bacterial cells, which enabled the phage DNA to bypass the bacterium’s defense mechanisms. The successful infiltration of the DNA into P. aeruginosa led to the creation of virions that cut through and killed the bacterial cell.

Broader implications 

The implications of this research are vast, especially considering the escalating global crisis of antibacterial resistance. Hartmann highlighted the potential of phage therapies, which can be highly specific in targeting bacterial infections without the broad disruption caused by antibiotics. 

“What’s powerful about phage is it can be very specific in the way that antibiotics are not,” she said. “If you take an antibiotic for a sinus infection, for example, it disrupts your entire gastrointestinal tract. A phage therapy can be designed to affect only the infection.”

A glimmer of hope 

Although phage therapies have been explored before, Hartmann’s focus on P. aeruginosa, one of the top five deadliest human pathogens, marks a significant step forward. This pathogen is particularly dangerous for individuals with compromised immune systems and is a common cause of hospital infections.

The study showcases a novel approach to dealing with drug-resistant bacteria, offering a glimmer of hope in what has become a critical global health issue. By furthering our understanding of phages and their potential as therapeutic agents, Hartmann’s research opens the door to innovative treatments that could significantly impact public health.

More about antibiotic-resistant bacteria 

Antibiotic-resistant bacteria are strains of bacteria that have developed the ability to survive exposure to antibiotics that were originally effective against them. This phenomenon poses a significant public health challenge, as it can make bacterial infections harder to treat.

Natural selection

The resistance develops through natural selection: bacteria with genetic mutations that confer resistance are more likely to survive in the presence of antibiotics. These surviving bacteria then reproduce, passing on the resistance genes. Over time, this process can lead to the emergence of bacterial populations that are resistant to one or more antibiotics.

Overuse of antibiotics 

The overuse and misuse of antibiotics in both human medicine and in agriculture have accelerated the spread of antibiotic resistance. In healthcare, this includes using antibiotics for non-bacterial infections or not completing prescribed courses. In agriculture, antibiotics are often used to promote growth in livestock, a practice that contributes to the development of resistant bacteria.

Resistant infections 

Resistant bacteria can spread between individuals and across communities, making infections like pneumonia, tuberculosis, and gonorrhea harder to treat. This situation leads to longer hospital stays, higher medical costs, and increased mortality.

Mitigation strategies

To combat antibiotic resistance, efforts are focused on prudent use of antibiotics, development of new antibiotics and alternative treatments, better infection control in healthcare settings, and improved hygiene and sanitation practices. Public education on the appropriate use of antibiotics is also crucial.

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