QJ Science: New antibiotic discovery

Contrary to what the name may suggest, the iChip has nothing to do with Apple Inc.

The electronic device has introduced a new method of growing bacteria and helped discover teixobactin, the first new antibiotic in 30 years.

The iChip works by isolating antibiotic compounds in their natural environment. As Ed Yong of National Geographic wrote, “Teixobactin is a fish; the iChip is the rod. Having the rod guarantees that we’ll get more fish—and we desperately need more.” Hailed as a “game-changer” in the fight against antibiotic-resistant bacteria, the iChip has already led to the discovery of a new antibiotic.

Starting in the 1940s, the majority of our current antibiotics, including penicillin and streptomycin, were discovered. The process was done by taking soil bacteria, growing them in a lab and screening them for chemicals they use to defend themselves from other bacteria. Some of these bacteria-killing chemicals could then be cultivated for use as antibiotics.

However, around 99 per cent of bacteria in soil can’t be grown in a lab, so our source of antibiotics was quickly exhausted. The lack of new antibiotics, as well as the improper use and overuse of antibiotics, has led to bacteria such as Mycobacterium tuberculosis (the cause of tuberculosis) and Staphylococcus aureus (a cause of skin and respiratory infections) developing resistance. These bacteria ignore most, if not all, treatments we throw at them.

To help solve this problem, researchers at Northeastern University in Boston developed the iChip or “isolation chip”. First, a single bacterium is placed inside each of the several hundred diffusion chambers (or pods) on the iChip.

Then the iChip is immersed in the bacteria’s natural environment (i.e., soil), where nutrients and growth factors are able to diffuse into the pods, thus allowing bacteria to grow but not escape.

The results of Northeastern’s study on the iChip, published in the journal Applied and Environmental Microbiology, indicate minimal overlap between bacteria species grown in the iChip and those that can be cultivated in a lab. This means that for the first time in nearly 30 years, we’re able to screen new bacteria for chemicals that could be used as antibiotics.

As if that isn’t good enough news on its own, the same research group has recently announced the discovery of a new antibiotic teixobactin.

Teixobactin kills bacteria by preventing them from building a cell wall, which protects them from the outside world. Since its method of killing bacteria is different than that of other antibiotics, bacteria have yet to evolve resistance to it.

Furthermore, recent trials have indicated no damage to mammalian cells. The implications for human disease, particularly antibiotic-resistant infections, are enormous.

Although it might sound like a miracle drug, teixobactin, like all antibiotics, will do absolutely nothing to treat viral diseases like the flu or the common cold. It’s also a long way from being available to humans, as numerous levels of clinical trials must be passed first.

Nonetheless, for the first time in quite a while, humans might finally have an advantage in our arms race against bacteria.

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