The discovery of a new antibiotic capable of killing some disease-causing bacteria is raising hopes for scientists struggling to overcome growing antibiotic resistance.
Teixobactin works against some bacteria, including Clostridium difficile, which causes an infectious disease of the same name, and Mycobacterium tuberculous, which causes tuberculosis.
- Read the paper in Nature
- Listen to an interview with lead author Kim Lewis on CBC's Quirks & Quarks Saturday
"In a field that has been nothing but gloom and doom for the last half decade or so, this is a nice breath of fresh air, something new for us to look towards," said Gerry Wright, the director of McMaster University's Michael G. DeGroote Institute for Infectious Disease Research in Hamilton, who wrote a commentary on the study published in Nature this week.
Teixobactin works against some bacteria strains that have become resistant to other drugs. Bacteria exposed to it did not show resistance. It's possible bacteria will eventually evolve resistance to it, but researchers suggest that process could take longer than three decades.
Resistance is troublesome
While the discovery doesn't mean teixobactin will soon become a prescribed antibiotic — a process that takes anywhere from five to 10 years — Wright said the potential antibiotic is still an exciting development.
Bacterial resistance to known antibiotics has been a growing worry.
'In a field that has been nothing but gloom and doom for the last half decade or so, this is a nice breath of fresh air.' — Gerry Wright, scientist
Last year, the World Health Organization sounded the alarm on antimicrobial resistance. It released a report saying it has reached alarming rates in many parts of the world, leaving some areas with limited effective treatment options for common infections.
Typically, when bacteria developed resistance to an antibiotic, scientists would return to the lab and develop a new one. But Wright, who studies how to inhibit resistance to existing antibiotics, said that while bacteria have been developing resistance to our antibiotic supply, scientists haven't discovered any new antibiotics since the mid-1980s.
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Scientists have been stuck growing bacteria in lab settings. But, because creating molecules capable of killing bacteria from scratch in a lab is so difficult, scientists have only been able to sample between one and five per cent of organisms.
Those have been a fruitful source of antibiotics, but scientists aren't able to discover anything new from the bacteria and fungi that's easy to grow, Wright said, calling the situation "a pretty bad place."
Road map for future discoveries
The teixobactin discovery provides some hope to solving this problem.
The scientists behind the research developed a new technology to look at the roughly 99 per cent of bacteria and fungi that have been previously impossible to grow in a lab.
They developed the iChip to isolate and then grow uncultured bacteria in their natural environment. They would isolate cells, trap them in the device and return them to grow in soil, Wright explains.
The scientists then screened 10,000 compounds they created to discover teixobactin.
"It gives us a road map of a new place ... to look for antibiotics," said Wright, who hopes this development will spark more investment in the field.
"This doesn't rescue us ... It's going to get worse before it gets better."