Danger Room, Wired (May 24, 2010)
"A super-germ that's become a lethal threat to troops in Iraq and Afghanistan may have met its match in a novel technique that kills entire bacterial colonies within hours.
"Today's troops have a 9 in 10 chance of surviving their battle injuries. But wounds and amputation sites leave them vulnerable to infection, especially by Acinetobacter — an opportunistic pathogen (somewhat-misleadingly) nicknamed 'Iraqibacter' for its prevalence in war-zone medical facilities. As Wired Magazine reported in 2007, the bacteria has infected at least 700 American troops since 2003, and killed at least 7 people exposed to it in military clinics.
"Iraqibacter was once treated with common, easy-to-access antibiotic drugs. But in the last few years, the bacteria have developed a powerful resistance to all but one medication, called Colistin, that's got a bit of a nasty side effect: potentially fatal kidney damage.
"And since the illness afflicts relatively few people, Big Pharma companies aren't exactly lining up to develop new drugs...."
So far, nothing remarkable: This article looked like it was going to be another one of those hand-wringing specials about heartless big corporations, and all that.
Here's the next paragraph. Get ready for a surprise:
"...But a Pentagon-funded research team at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, along with small biotech firm PolyMedix, are making rapid strides toward a new line of Iraqibacter treatments — and the medications could spur the development of antibiotics that can fend off other drug-resistant ailments.
" 'We didn't set out to create a mechanism that could be applied to other illnesses,' Dr. Gregory Tew, the UMass scientist behind the project, told Danger Room. 'But it's an impressive and exciting bonus that's come of our work.'
"The scientists have already used the new type of antibiotics to effectively treat Staph infections, which kill thousands of Americans each year. Common antibiotics work by attaching to a specific molecule (like an enzyme) inside bacterial cells. With some minor adaptive changes, bacteria can alter their cell structure to prevent antibiotic binding, thereby becoming resistant to the drugs. Some infections even develop 'persister cells,' which stop growing when the antibiotics are administered, and then turn back on once a round of meds is completed.
"But Tew and co. have developed antibiotics that work from the outside to quickly destroy bacterial cells...."
Essentially, the new drugs don't make small-scale changes in the bacteria: they poke holes in the cell membranes, killing them instantly. And, short of growing the microbial equivalent of chain mail, there doesn't seem to be much the germs can do about it.
Given the resilient nature of disease organisms, I suspect that eventually there may be a super-duper-superbug that'll have that 'chain mail.' But that's another issue.
Right now, it looks like a whole lot of people will be living, who would have died otherwise. And, incredible as it may seem for someone immersed in America's dominant culture, we have the American military to thank.
A slightly longer version of this post appeared in another of my blogs:
- "Antibiotic-Resistant Superbug: The American Military Did Something Right?!"
Another War-on-Terror Blog (May 24, 2010)