On a long enough timeline, the superbugs are going to win.
For starters, there are an estimated 5 million trillion trillion bacteria — a number with 30 zeroes in it — on the planet and only about 7.6 billion of us.
But the biggest threat posed by bacteria isn’t just its abundance. Rather, it’s that our best defenses against them are becoming less effective by the day.
With fewer new antibiotics being discovered and more bacteria becoming immune to current ones, humanity is currently on the losing side of a war against enemies that are naked to the human eye.
The first-ever look at antibiotic resistance’s impact on the United States came from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 2013.
Researchers estimated that at least 2 million people are infected annually by antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Of those, 23,000 die from infections.
These infections most often begin in a healthcare setting, such as a hospital or nursing home, but they can occur anywhere.
Some of these superbugs include drug-resistant sexually transmitted diseases and those that can cause deadly bouts of diarrhea.
By the year 2050, those bacteria are estimated to cause 10 million deaths across the globe each year.
“We’re currently living in a global health crisis,” César de la Fuente-Nunez, an MIT postdoctoral researcher working to find new ways to fight back against these microscopic serial killers, told Healthline.
But there is some hope. Scientists may have discovered a new key with peptides and amino acids.
A brief history of antibiotics
For a brief period in history, humans have the upper hand against bacterial agents.
It started in 1928 with the discovery of the first true antibiotic: penicillin.
Alexander Fleming chose not to patent his discovery, later saying nature was its inventor and he merely stumbled upon it by accident.
But drug discovery and development has changed dramatically since Fleming’s time.
In the past few decades, major drug makers have been backing out of antibiotic development.
Developing antibiotics aimed at the worst bacterial offenders is bad business. Drug companies can spend more than $2 billion to develop a drug from phase I trial to market approval.
It doesn’t make financial sense to spend that money on a drug that’s best used the fewest number of times.
Because that’s how antibiotics work.
Bacteria have done enough battle with modern drugs to know their next, second, and even 10th move.
The bugs have outsmarted our drugs. If the course isn’t soon corrected, even something as benign as dental work could lead to an oozing, painful death sentence.
In other words, humanity needs to be more careful with the antibiotics is has and discover new ones bacteria haven’t developed defenses against yet.
A new antibacterial hope
Recent research published in the journal ACS Synthetic Biology suggests new and novel antibiotics may be hiding inside antimicrobial peptides, or AMPs.
These AMPs are part of the natural defenses of all living organisms that help kill off foreign invaders, whether dangerous bacteria, viruses, or fungi.
Previous research has shown AMPs are “excellent candidates for developing novel antimicrobial agents,” although, on their own, they’re often not powerful enough to kill some of the strongest bacteria.
The hard part, says de la Fuente-Nunez, the senior author on the newly published research, is finding which peptides — or two or more amino acids linked together — in the genetic code can be targeted toward attacking antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
In the study, de la Fuente-Nunez and other researchers from MIT and the University of Naples Federico II in Italy used a “discovery tool” that allows them to browse through protein databases for small patterns in code, specifically the 20-letter code of amino acids, or the basic building blocks of proteins necessary for life.
“It’s sort of like a search engine,” de la Fuente-Nunez said. “We’re able to look where no one has been able to look before.”
What they found was that certain combinations of amino acids were more effective than others at killing bacteria.
One was small pieces of the peptide pepsin A, which helps the stomach digest food. Researchers found it could kill common bacterial offenders such as E. coli and salmonella, which you might have encountered if you’ve ever suffered from food poisoning.
Besides killing bacteria, the new potential antibiotics weren’t toxic to human cells in a laboratory setting or in skin infections in mice.
“These peptides thus represent a promising new class of antibiotics,” the researchers concluded.
De la Fuente-Nunez says peptides could be an important target in creating new drugs to fight off increasingly deadly bacteria. This is because peptides are easily programmed, and their results were synthesized in the lab to confirm that their computer algorithm’s searches were correct.
“Previously, we didn’t know what these molecules did,” he said.
But there’s still plenty more testing to be done.
While a new antibiotic discovery could be made today, it may take a decade to get onto the market.
“We’re hoping to bridge the gap and make it shorter,” de la Fuente-Nunez said.
Medical and government officials are raising red flags about antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and government outfits such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) are making up for some of the research dollars many bigger pharmaceutical companies do not want to invest.
“There’s a bit more interest now,” de la Fuente-Nunez said, “but it’s alarming how Big Pharma has moved away.”