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Searching the Ocean for Solutions to Antibiotic Resistance

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Jan Mallander
/
Pixabay
Microbes are responsible for much of the color on coral reefs. They may also hold solutions to the rising problem of antibiotic resistance.

Antibiotics revolutionized 20th century medicine, reigning in common infectious killers, like tuberculosis and influenza. Decades later, though, a growing number of antibiotics are losing effectiveness. In 2013, nearly half a million people worldwide contracted multi-drug resistant tuberculosis.

The World Health Organization warns that “without urgent, coordinated action, the world is heading towards a post-antibiotic era, in which common infections and minor injuries, which have been treatable for decades, can once again kill.”

Without urgent, coordinated action, the world is heading towards a post-antibiotic era, in which common infections and minor injuries, which have been treatable for decades, can once again kill.

Disease-causing bacteria are rapidly evolving ways to kick antibiotics out of their cells before they have a chance to do any harm. Researchers at Northeastern University recently discovered a new antibiotic that appears to be resistance-resistant. But, in general, the development of new antibiotics has been painfully slow.

Kristen Whalen, a research associate in the chemistry department at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, has a different plan. Rather than find new antibiotics, she's looking for chemicals that could block bacteria's ability to move antibiotics out of the cell. That would restore effectiveness to the antibiotics we already have. And, instead of turning to soil bacteria (the usual source for antibiotic discovery) to find these compounds, she's looking in the ocean.

Why the ocean? Besides the fact that Whalen is a marine biologist, it turns out that the majority of marine bacteria fall into the same category - called gram negative - as some of the most difficult-to-treat pathogenic bacteria.

The ocean is a big place, but resources can still be scarce, and competition fierce. Many marine organisms resort to chemical warfare. Whalen has studied the phenomenon for years and figured that, with so many gram negative bacteria around, some of their competitors would have found a workaround for their ability to resist antibiotic attacks.

She appears to have been right. While the research isn't published yet, Whalen and her colleagues have filed a provisional patent for one compound, and they have three dozen more "hits" to follow-up on.