Have you heard of “superbugs?” Superbugs are bacteria that have gained the superpower to survive in the presence of antibiotics—medicines developed to slow or kill the growth of bacteria. Antibiotics are widely used to treat infections and to prevent infections after surgery. Because antibiotics are effective and convenient, doctors prescribe them often, which may lead to overuse. Bacteria are smart and have learned to survive in environments with antibiotics. They are called superbugs when antibiotics can no longer kill them. Infections caused by superbugs are difficult and expensive to treat, cause longer hospital stays and, unfortunately, lead to more deaths. One example of a superbug is methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (abbreviated as MRSA and pronounced “mur-suh”).
The emergence of superbugs might seem like a recent event because of antibiotic use and overuse, but from the bacteria’s perspective, becoming a superbug is not new. Bacteria have been fighting over millions of years against a variety of naturally occurring antibiotics in the environment. They can adapt to their habitat either by changing or exchanging genetic codes. By doing so, bacteria can make changes to the places where antibiotics are designed to bind (called “targets”) or produce a “decoy” so that antibiotics do not bind to the intended targets. Bacteria can also make pumps to remove antibiotics from the body. When antibiotics can’t bind to their target, they can’t kill bacteria and fight disease.
With more bacteria quickly turning into superbugs, getting the upper hand in this battle may require more creative strategies. Last year, the Nobel Prize in Medicine was awarded for discovering ways to combat cancer by regulating our defense system. While a lot of currently available anti-cancer drugs work by killing cancer cells, some scientists are exploring innovative approaches that strengthen our own ability to fight against cancer.
Similar approaches may be useful in the fight against superbugs. For example, if you’ve ever touched a fish and noticed its sliminess, you’ve experienced its first layer of defense. This slimy layer acts as a shield that helps fish keep parasites away. Our blood vessels, gut and immune cells are also lined with a similar shield. Instead of designing antibiotics to kill bacteria, scientists are interested in learning more about strengthening our immune system and other defenses to prevent bacteria from entering our body.
Given that bacteria are very talented at evading antibiotics, we need to not only limit the amount of antibiotics we use, but we must also strive to outsmart bacteria to help us “live long and prosper.”
Kaori Oshima, PhD, is a postdoctoral fellow in pulmonary sciences and critical care medicine at the University of Colorado Denver | Anschutz Medical Campus. Her study focuses on how the glycocalyx (a sugar-rich, gel-like layer that lines the blood vessels) affects the severity of bacterial infections.