A review into the development of antibiotics

Fleming working in Penicillin antibiotic laboratory
Source: Calibuon (via Wikimedia Commons)
A feature looking into the development of antibiotics, the antibiotic resistance crisis and new studies on new antibiotics and antibiotic-resistant pathogens

By Mili Jayadeep | Science Editor

Due to his accidental discovery of Penicillin, the first antibiotic, in 1928, Alexander Fleming has become a household name. He is known by many as the creator of a miracle medicine: 

 “Penicillin started as a chance observation. My only merit is that I did not neglect that observation”.

 Fleming found an unusual observation on one of his petri dishes. The dish was contaminated by mould spores, which appeared to destroy the bacterial colonies surrounding it by producing a compound lethal to bacteria. Fleming published his research regarding penicillin in the British Journal of Experimental Pathology, at a time when Penicillin was only a potential medicine. Penicillin was not commercially available due to difficulty in purifying the substance for use. 

Several years later, researchers at Oxford University drew an interest to penicillin and re-attempted purifying the compound from the mould. Following animal testing, Albert Alexander, who was suffering from a deadly infection became the first person to recover after the administration of penicillin on February 12 1941.

 Antibiotics revolutionised medicine and changed the way bacterial infections were treated; infections such as pneumonia and gonorrhoea went from fatal to treatable. 

Antibiotics typically work by interrupting processes that synthesise bacterial cell walls. This kills bacteria by causing bacterial cells to breakdown. They remain essential to this day in everyday healthcare. Treating infectious disease is only of the important roles of antibiotics. It is also used to prevent infection from surgery, chemotherapy and even organ transplants.

 Although antibiotic use has helped save millions of lives worldwide, antibiotic resistance has been becoming an increasing problem. Due to overuse of antibiotics, different types of bacteria have developed a resistance to antibiotics, deeming the antibiotic ineffective against the bacterial infection. Alexander Fleming himself suggested,

 “The time may come when penicillin can be bought by anyone in the shops. Then there is the danger that the ignorant man may easily under-dose himself and by exposing his microbes to non-lethal quantities of the drug make them resistant.”

 In fact, there are some bacteria that are resistant to all antibiotics that have been discovered, hence labelled multi-drug resistant. Furthermore, the development of new antibiotics is slowing down. The lack of antibiotics or its ineffectiveness can ultimately lead to medicine reverting back to the pre-antibiotic age, when infections could kill. This highlights the importance of ongoing research to combat antibiotic resistance.

 Important research by Cardiff and Warwick University has contributed towards our understanding of an antibiotic known as enacyloxin. This has the potential to be used against Acinetobacter Baumanii, a pathogen commonly responsible for causing hospital-acquired infections. The studies conducted by the researchers have since been published in journals.

 The University of Warwick researchers studied the antibiotic by understanding its chemical structure. Findings on the enzymes involved in the configuration of this antibiotic show that enacyloxin can be modified for use against the drug-resistant bacteria, Acinetobacter Baumannii. Professor Greg Challis from the University of Warwick said:

 “Being able to alter the structure of the antibiotic will be key in future studies to optimise it for treating infections in humans.”

 The study determined important revelations on the antibiotic, which has the potential to engineer antibiotics to combat resistant pathogens such as Acinetobacter Baumannii. Professor Challis added:

“Our insights into this process should allow us to use cutting edge synthetic biology techniques to produce novel enacyloxin analogues with improved pharmaceutical properties.”

This study was based on research already conducted at Cardiff University, which revealed that enacyloxin proved effective against the multi-drug resistant Acinetobacter Baumannii. Professor Eshwar Mahenthiralingam, the Lead Researcher at Cardiff University commented on the findings:

“We were very excited when we discovered enacyloxin was produced by Burkholderia ambifaria, but due to the unstable structure of the antibiotic, we knew it would be difficult to develop clinically. It is great see the continued work by Professor Challis’s group opening up new potential for the antibiotic.”

Antibiotics are as important now as they were in their discovery; they save thousands of lives, and through leading research, like that done at Cardiff and Warwick University, will continue to do so.

Science and Technology Mili Jayadeep

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