Resistance to antibiotics poses a "major global threat" to public health, says a new report by the World Health Organization (WHO). In Canada alone, 250,000 people develop hospital-aquired infections and 12,000 die, more than deaths from traffic accidents, breast cancer and AIDS combined.
We're entering a "post-antibiotic era", where people will die from simple infections that have been treatable for decades. The report warns that there will be "devastating" implications unless "significant" action is taken now.
New antibiotics are urgently needed - an estimated 10 new families - by the year 2020 to stop the spread of resistance. And right now researchers are scouring remote corners of the world in search of new ones.
Meet Canada's Dr. Monique Van Hoek, currently working at George Mason University. She's studying the blood serum of giant lizards like alligators and crocodiles for new peptides and is particularily interested in komodo dragons, a creature whose salivia transfers a deadly bacteria with every bite.
Conveniently for her, she doesn't have to paddle through the Everglades or travel to a remote Indonesian island. Her subjects are found at the St.Augustine Alligator Farm in Florida.
Van Hoek is convinced that new antibiotics reside in these animals with their incredible powers of immunity. "Alligators, like crocodiles and monitor lizards are ancient creatures. They've survived partly because they have very effective immune systems. Even though they live in sordid, septic environments, they never seem to have infections."
The peptides in the lizards' blood and salivia may hold an important key. Peptides are much smaller than antibiotic molecules and attack the outer member of a bacterial cell. "It's like putting a gun to the bacteria and blowing it apart," says Van Hoek, "the bacteria can't build up an immunity to this kind of attack."
She hopes that we can use those lizard peptides to enhance our own immunity in the form of an ointment to apply to wounds.
Van Hoek is one of the many scientists we'll meet on 'The Antibiotic Hunters' a look at how we're tackling what experts say is the most pressing global health problem of our time.