In the backdrop of the WHO terming growing anti-biotic resistance a global health epidemic, the discovery of teixobactin, the first antibiotic to be discovered in three decades, is heartening. Teixobactin, Nature reports, was discovered through a soil bacterium and has been found to be effective against the superbug methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) in mice tests and in pathogen cultures.
The discovery is ground-breaking because of two reasons. First, it is so from an academic point of view, demonstrating a successful mechanism in bacterial culture for antibiotic harvest from “uncultured” bacteria. Over 80% of the antibiotics existing today are harvested from bacteria or fungi while the rest are synthetic. At the same time, only 1% of the existing microbes can be cultured under lab conditions, vastly limiting the antibiotic-discovery potential. For teixobactin, researchers used an iChip, a chamber with hundreds of small holes; in each hole, colonies of the separate species of the uncultured bacteria were allowed to form after the iChip was embedded in the soil (to offer the bacteria their natural environment). Holes formed on a drug-resistant Staphylococcus culture overlaid on the iChip indicated that the colony below was producing a new antibiotic. Over 10,000 species were screened by the researchers before teixobactin was reported. Second, given the antibiotic resistance was reaching dangerous lows—India recently reported resistance to colistin, a last-resort antibiotic (colistin resistance is still very rare with resistance to carbapenem, the strongest class of antibiotics, reaching alarming levels)—the discovery provides some respite, even though clinical trials are still a couple of years away. Apart from the human costs of resistance—nearly 10 million deaths every year by 2050, predicts the US’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention—the potential economic costs, in lost man hours, healthcare costs, insurance payouts,etc, are staggering.