5 facts about antibiotic resistance

While the advances of modern medicine can be truly impressive – for example we are able to develop an effective Covid-19 vaccine in a matter of months – antibiotic resistance is increasingly becoming a cause for concern.

14 December 2021

Lady scientist in microbiology laboratory working with E coli culture

By Mariusz Bogacki, Researcher and Science Communicator, Edinburgh

Antibiotic resistance is the ability of germs, like bacteria and fungi, to defeat the drugs designed to kill them. Let’s take a look at 5 interesting facts about this troubling phenomenon and the new ways of tackling it.

Bacteria are faster than us
Modern medicine follows a process of genomic sequencing in order to find new antibiotics. Unfortunately, this method is not only time consuming but also costly. Additionally, there’s no guarantee that each process will result in a discovery of new and effective drugs. Bacteria, on the other hand, appear to be learning to withstand the existing antibiotic treatments by developing strategies that prevent an antibiotic from damaging their cells. Over the years, researchers have noticed that antibiotic resistance appears to be more frequent and accelerating. For example, while daptomycin – antibiotic used to treat various bacterial infections caused by Gram-positive bacteria – came out in 2002, resistance to it was already noticeable as early as 2004.

Hidden pandemic
It is estimated that in 2020, one in five people in the UK with a bloodstream infection had developed an antibiotic-resistance to treatment. This is a concerning statistic as antibiotics are vital for the treatment of bacterial infections that cause pneumonia, meningitis and sepsis among other diseases. Indeed, The World Health Organisation (WHO) considers antibiotic resistance as “one of the biggest threats to global health”.

All-in-one but not one-for-all
For a long time, we have relied on single-use antibiotics, or a limited combination of antibiotics, and this makes it easy for bacteria to acquire resistance. Evidence shows that widespread antibiotic misuse has propelled antimicrobial resistance in recent decades. Scientists agree that development of a wide range of broad-spectrum and narrow-spectrum antibiotics to effectively fight new bacteria is as important as educating patients and prescribing antibiotics appropriately.

Accelerating antibiotic discovery
Researchers across the globe are employing artificial intelligence (AI) to discover novel antibiotics more quickly and accurately than traditional methods have allowed for in the past - and some are seeing promising results. Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have recently discovered a powerful new antibiotic compound using deep-learning methods. The AI model used was designed to identify compounds that kill bacteria using different mechanisms to those of existing antibiotics and was capable of screening over a hundred million candidates in just few days. The ability to computationally predict the properties and activity of new molecules with AI can save researchers time, money and resources that would otherwise be wasted on testing compounds that prove to have little or no value.

We are all in this together
Bacterial resistance is something that occurs naturally and is caused by multiple factors, including antibiotic overuse in people and livestock, lack of compliance with antibiotic prescriptions, lack of hygiene and poor infection control practices in healthcare settings. The good news is that, now that we know what causes resistance, we can target these risk factors and help bring rates of resistance down. Through access to information, proper usage and changing the way we develop antibiotics, people can eventually themselves resist, antibiotic resistance.