The One Thing about “Superbugs”, that Nobody Seems to Notice

Scientists from the US Army have identified yet another ‘Superbug‘, or a bacterium that is resistant to even the most potent antibiotics (Detailed news here). This has sent researchers around the world scrambling once again to look for newer, even more potent (and possibly more side-effect causing) antibiotics to fight the threat. Today we will speculate over whether and how plant-based medicine could revolutionarily figure out as a possible solution in the big picture.

At the centre of all this issue, is the ability of the bacteria to adapt faster than expected, and mutate to develop capabilities of resisting antibiotics which would otherwise kill them easily. This causes us to brainstorm over why we are falling short and what can be done.

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Microscopic picture of an E.coli bacterial strain.

Long story short
This time, it is an E.coli species that can resist colistin, the last line antibiotic known till date. Fortunately, it was still sensitive to carbapenems, the second last line. Yet, similar bacteria resistant to carbapenems already exist. That theoretically means that bacteria are just one mutational step away from gaining complete resistance to all known antibiotics; and they have proven that it is entirely possible.

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An Infographic showing various routes of antibiotic resistance development, taken from US CDC Threat Report 2013. (Courtesy: US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

Why does this happen?
This is because bacteria, being living organisms made of DNA, have the characteristic of adapting to whatever adverse environmental changes (antibiotics, in this case) they get exposed to. Whenever they survive an antibiotic onslaught, they immediately develop traits that render their future generations immune to that antibiotic molecule. Our poor little antibiotics, on the hand, are just non-living chemical compounds that obviously can’t evolve to match this challenge. So, ever since we have created them, we have been consistently replacing older antibiotics with newer, more toxic and costlier ones, as bacteria get immune to them one by one. This is like a rat-race that has become a vicious cycle for everyone, except… well, the pharma companies.

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This cartoon may be funny, but antibiotic resistance is not really a thing to be taken lightly.

Another question: Why is this getting talked about only nowadays?
It is only now that researchers are finding themselves increasingly at the end of the rope, when it comes to finding new antibiotics. Most of the common classes of antibiotics have almost exhausted their arsenal today. This is attributed largely to the indiscriminate use of strong antibiotics for even smaller infections, since the 90s.

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Estimated deaths due to antimicrobial resistance, as compared to other major reasons, according to US CDC data.

So what could be the solution? Using plant-based antibiotic medicine for mild-to-moderate infections can be a great option, but that’s not the point we are making here.

What we need is a permanent solution, one which can stop, or atleast tilt this rat-race of evolution in the human race’s favour. Bacteria will keep evolving, we can’t stop them from doing that. But can we possibly develop some antibiotics that can evolve for themselves to compete with the bacteria?
If yes, how?

THIS question brings us to the basic concept – the one that I have been pondering over. E.coli (and, for that record, almost all the current bacteria) have been around for quite some centuries at least now. Before the advent of antibiotics, the doctors used to treat infections with plant medicine only. Ayurveda documents the same plant-based antibiotic medicines as being successfully used for treating bacterial infections for thousands of years, up until the last century. In today’s world, most of these work only on mild/moderate infections, as bacteria have grown resistant to them quite well.

However, the point of curiosity that gets raised here is, how did the plant-based medicines remain effective despite bacterial resistance development for thousands of years, when synthetic antibiotics normally lose the battle in just a few decades? Surely, bacteria used to mutate and evolve back then too. Then why didn’t they develop resistance to those plant-based medicines in all those millennia?

Here comes the point I’m trying to make. I’m not a microbiologist or biochemist, so I may be proven completely wrong even, but what I am proposing, can definitely be an idea worth working on for the future. The answer, in my view, is that, just like bacteria, plants too are living organisms that evolve to tackle the environmental challenges they face. Can it be possible that the medicinal plants too, continuously evolved across all those millennia to produce newer effective biochemicals that could handle the evolved bacteria equally well?

If yes, it would be interesting to ponder over why they have lost the battle of evolution to the bacteria in the last century. The answer, in fact, can be quite simple – indiscriminate human intervention in the plants’ natural environment since the last century has changed the very environment they live in, shifting their evolutionary priorities towards traits that do not involve their antibiotic properties. The bacteria, meanwhile, find their environment more and more conducive to evolutionary as well as spontaneous mutations. So, after thousands of years, the bacteria have finally outrun the plants in the race. Add to this, the GMO boom, and we find ourselves destroying more and more medicinal traits of plants in the haste of promoting production increasing characteristics. (GMO researchers seriously need to take note that they do not alter the medicinal properties of the plants they are modifying.)

So, to conclude, let us imagine, if only we could apply our knowledge of genetics and cell biology to develop and foster “SuperHerbs” that evolve faster than these “Superbugs”, and produce more and more efficient antibiotics naturally, without giving any significant side-effects? Maybe all this is only a daydream of an Ayurveda practitioner; maybe it is too sci-fi to be realisable in near future, but it is certainly an idea to think, dream and work around.

Any thoughts/ideas/comments/criticisms over this article ? All are equally welcome! Please feel free to start a discussion.

About the Author – Dr. Harshad Rajandekar is a practitioner of Integrated medicine, based out of Nasik, India. You can connect with him on LinkedIn here.

More related posts by Dr. Harshad –

Groundbreaking technique that could help the blind regain sight goes under human trials

All about the Zika virus outbreak, Aedes Mosquito and How to Fight Them Herbally

The Technology that is set to make Paralytic Disability a Thing of Past: 6 Things to Know

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