The overuse and misuse of antibiotics has given rise to drug-resistant “superbugs,” potentially returning humans to the dark ages of medicine. But the discovery of new ways to keep these dangerous bacteria in check may help us keep the lights on.

First and foremost, doctors must push to keep current antibiotics effective through careful and sparing use. However, new antibiotics are badly needed to fight bacteria that have already learned how to outsmart the drugs currently used in humans and animals. 

Bacteria have become resistant to modern antibiotics through repeated exposure, making some of them virtually impossible to kill. Drug-resistant bacteria infect more than 2 million Americans every year and are responsible for 23,000 deaths annually in the United States, .

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) recently made a novel discovery that could destroy bacteria that harbor genes making them immune to antibiotics. A study published in the journal  shows how researchers were able to edit the bacterial genome in order to turn off drug resistance. 

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Earlier this year, the same lab found that certain genes, when paired together, can make bacteria easier to kill with antibiotics. 

“This is a pretty crucial moment when there are fewer and fewer new antibiotics available, but more and more antibiotic resistance evolving,” lead researcher Dr. Timothy Lu, an associate professor of biological engineering, told MIT News. “We’ve been interested in finding new ways to combat antibiotic resistance, and these papers offer two different strategies for doing that.” 

Potential New Antibiotic Hides in an Existing Drug

A second potential new class of antibiotics could come from a drug already on the market. 

New research published in the journal eLife suggests that the anticonvulsant and mood stabilizing drug lamotrigine (Lamictal) may have a new use: inhibiting key bacterial building blocks. 

Researchers at McMaster University and the Scripps Research Institute found that the medication can keep bacteria from building ribosomes, the mechanism E. coli bacteria need to produce proteins and carry out other vital functions. 

"Ribosome-inhibiting antibiotics have been routinely used for more than 50 years to treat bacterial infections, but inhibitors of bacterial ribosome assembly have waited to be discovered," chief study investigator Eric Brown, a professor of biochemistry and biomedical sciences at McMaster, said in a statement. "Such molecules would be an entirely new class of antibiotics, which would get around antibiotic resistance of many bacteria. We found lamotrigine works."

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Big Government Incentives Drive New Antibiotics

Earlier this month, President Barack Obama signed an executive order establishing a task force to address the growing threat of antibiotic resistance in the United States. The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) identified ways to combat resistant bacteria, including expanding the $250 million in annual research funding given to the National Institutes of Health. 

PCAST also recommended expanding the infrastructure for clinical trials and fast-tracking antibiotics through the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval process. 

The U.S. government currently gives pharmaceutical companies financial incentives under the Generating Antibiotic Incentives Now (GAIN) Act. In the past five months, the FDA has approved three new antibiotics to treat skin infections, including methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). Thirty-nine other antibiotics are currently in development using GAIN funds.

One big caveat of the PCAST report was that the government must make a minimum investment of $800 million per year to attract more private companies to develop new antibiotics. New antibiotic development is currently in a lull because it is not as profitable for large pharmaceutical companies to develop antibiotics as it is for them to develop drugs for chronic diseases. 

“We still have a long way to go in getting a leg up on building a new and more effective arsenal of antimicrobial products. And once approved, it will be critical for health care professionals to appropriately prescribe these new antibiotics,” Dr. Janet Woodcock, director of FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, wrote. “But with ongoing collaborative, concerted efforts by the many public and private stakeholders, we can continue to advance and help build a national antibacterial research and development enterprise capable of bringing new drugs to the patients who need them.”

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