Last year the World Health Organization warned that without immediate action, the world is headed for a post-antibiotic era.  Infections and minor injuries that were once easily treated could become deadly as bacteria evolve to outsmart our existing antibiotic drugs.

Scientists are looking for ways to help rebuild our defences against deadly bacteria. Here are a few approaches they’re working on now:

Death by Virus

structure of a phage

Structure of a bacteriophage. Photo: iStock

Bacteriophages are viruses that infect and kill very specific kinds of harmful bacteria, which leaves the friendly bugs intact. They’ve been used effectively in Russia and Georgia for 90 years but are only now being seriously investigated in other parts of the world.

Phages attach to the bacteria, injecting their DNA which replicates and causes the bacteria cell to burst open. They kill bacteria on contact and could be used to prevent the spread of infections in places like hospitals and daycares. And as a bonus, when phages attack an infection, they replicate in the stricken bacteria, creating more of themselves.

Jim Collins and his team at Boston University engineered bacteriophages to breakup biofilms – which form on places like heart pacemakers or artificial hips – and are places where antibiotic resistant bugs are known to concentrate.

Bacteriophages have also been used successfully against C. difficile, a well-known hospital superbug, and streptococcus pneumoniae, responsible for diseases like strep throat, the flesh-eating disease and rheumatic fever. Human clinical trials are currently underway.

Silver Protection

silver water pitcher

Photo: iStock

Although they didn’t know why it worked, ancient civilizations used copper and silver vessels to disinfect water and preserve food.  Today, we know that exposure to metals can sabotage cellular chemistry.

Jim Collins and his team are adding silver to known antibiotics like vancomycin, which in mice has made the vanco more effective. And other researchers are considering using them to slay germs on our skin, in superficial wounds and on medical equipment.

Currently labs are trying to incorporate metals into bandages to prevent wound infections and into catheter tubes to cut down on hospital-acquired infections.  Studies show that they prevent bacterial growth and speed healing time.

Used in this way, silver can be an important tool in preventing harmful bacteria from gaining hold and spreading.

The Power of Poop

Dr. Thomas Louie, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Calgary, in his lab with stool pills in Calgary.

Dr. Thomas Louie, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Calgary, in his lab with stool pills in Calgary. Photo: Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press

Some doctors are beginning to experiment with fecal transplants. The idea dates back thousands of years to fourth-century China when they were used to treat all sorts of illnesses.

The procedure takes feces donated from a healthy human and inserts them into a patient by enema or by swallowing capsules.  It's a bit of a hard sell, but early reports say the procedure has great promise – especially against C. difficile infections which occur in people who’ve been taking antibiotics for other conditions. 

So far, Health Canada considers fecal therapy an experimental procedure that can only be conducted in a clinical trial. But as seen in ‘The Antibiotic Hunters’, some patients have taken a do-it-yourself approach. Health Canada warns though that using unscreened fecal matter from donors can led to new infections.

Blue Light Therapy

blue light therapy

Photo: Light Therapy Options LLC

Skin infections are among the most common bacterial infections seen in doctor's offices. The remedy may be as simple as coloured light.  Studies have found that blue light can be an effective treatment for MRSA - a common anitbiotic-resistant bacterial infection.  The results are immediate and the treatment has no known side effects. Blue light treatment has already been approved in the US for use as an antibiotic in some areas like the mouth. 

At Vancouver General Hospital in Canada, methylene blue dye and concentrated light are applied to disinfect patient's noses before surgery - an area where bacteria are known to concentrate. It's a quick and painless way to prevent the spread of bacterial infections to wounds post operation.

Even simple sunshine might help. Sunlight is known to boost Vitamin D levels, which helps the immune system fight off invaders.

Molecular Medicine

complex molecule

Photo: iStock

PPMO’s (peptide-conjugated phosphorodiamidate morpholino oligomers) are a new type of antibacterial that works by blocking genes essential for bacterial reproduction. These molecular drugs are synthesized in a lab and tailored to a very specific target. Researchers are hopeful that they’ll be specific enough to attack hundreds – even thousands – of bacteria. 

There have been promising results in early animal testing against Acinetobacter, a top bacterial infection threat, but the new drugs have yet to be tested in humans.

Let the Fresh Air In

open windows in hospital corridor

Photo: iStock

Hospitals might get a jump on controlling bacterial infections by taking a tip from Florence Nightingale and throwing open the windows. Jack Gilbert, a US microbiologist, holds the unconventional view that dangerous bacteria gain a foothold because they have little competition from other organisms. When you wipe out the good bacteria living in hospitals with sterilization and antibiotics, you destroy the 'green field' protective layer.  What does the science say? Studies have shown that air conditioned rooms have less diverse populations of microbes compared with rooms that were aired with open windows. 

New Use for an Old Drug

bottle of pills

Photo: iStock

Danish researcher Jorn Bolstad Christensen has discovered that Thioridazin, an antipsychotic drug, is able to kill bacteria without any harmful effects on humans. Thioridazine blocks the bacteria's efflux pumps which have evolved to pump the antibiotics out. Blocking that pump removes the bacteria's resistance to drugs.

This explains observations that psychiatric patients are rarely seriously ill from infections. And, early studies show that it works on Multi-drug Resistant Tuberculosis in the lab.

The team has isolated a milder form of Thioridazine, now called JEK 47, a drug with fewer side effects and patented it in Europe and the US. They're looking for investors to bring the drug to market.

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