December 01 2015

Antibiotic Resistance: Are We All Doomed?

By Mark Sisson
23 Comments

Petri dishThe future prospects of antibiotics look grim. Headline after headline proclaims the mounting resistance to antibiotics among pathogenic bacteria and the impending inefficacy of our best drugs to fight them. Antibiotic-resistant “pig MRSA” has been documented moving from pigs to people in several countries, including Denmark and Holland. That same MRSA has also been found in the US, England, and is likely brewing wherever pigs and other animals are intensively raised. And just recently, researchers discovered that MCR-1, the gene responsible for resistance to the “last line of defense” antibiotic—polymixin, the one we use when everything else has failed—is transferable between different strains of E. coli. Formerly relegated to pigs, E. coli and K. pneumoniae bacteria with the MCR-1 mutation have appeared in human subjects in several Chinese hospitals. Transferring the gene between different bacterial species is theoretically harder, but that it’s possible at all has raised alarms in the scientific community.

It’s not just industrial farms and antibiotic overuse causing the resistance. Even the scientists studying the problem and running experiments with antibiotics could very well be promoting antibiotic resistance on a larger scale.

This isn’t a modern phenomenon. Humans and bacteria have been embroiled in the antibiotic arms race for at least as long as we’ve had modern antibiotics. Heck, a few months after penicillin was released to the general public, scientists identified several strains of staph that had developed complete resistance. This happens every time. An antibiotic is released, bacteria become resistant, a new antibiotic comes out to counter the resistance, the bacteria develop resistance to the new drug. It never ends, and because their generations are so much shorter than ours, the bacteria have the advantage.

So, are we doomed? Will antibiotic-resistant superbacteria take over the world? Will bacterial biofilms blanket the globe, supplant nations, and battle each other for global supremacy? Will the few human survivors be forced into personal bubbles, impermeable to any and all microbes, gathering resources until the chosen one (who looks a lot like Keanu Reeves) emerges to lead a Purel-soaked rebellion against the microbial overlords?

Don’t despair. All is not lost. We don’t have to wait for Keanu to save us. There is hope.

New research subjects.

Most antibiotics come from studying how bacteria attack each other. Turns out it takes one to know one. But we’re limited in how many different types of bacteria we can study because 99% of the bacteria you’d encounter in the outside environment simply don’t grow under normal laboratory conditions. This drastically shrinks the window of research you have and makes creating effective therapies next to impossible.

Earlier this year, researchers figured out a way to get those ornery wild-type bacteria to grow and prosper in controlled settings: by bringing their native dirt into the lab. Once established and happy in their soil, the bacteria are slowly weaned off and “domesticated.” Then they move to petri dishes, where they thrive and the researchers can get studying. This method has already produced one viable candidate—teixobactin—which some are calling “resistance-resistant.” While that smacks of human hubris, it does look good thus far in animal trials, demolishing event resistant gram-positive bacteria like MRSA and C. dif while failing to confer any resistance to them during extended low-dose exposures. Unfortunately, teixobactin can’t touch gram-negative bacterial pathogens like K. pneumoniae or V. cholerae.

Still, the research field just opened up. 99% is a lot of bacteria and I bet they’ve got some nifty antibacterial tricks we can utilize.

Going back.

In the “golden age” of antibiotics research, around the middle of the last century, many potential antibiotics were discovered but shelved due to low commercial appeal or toxic side effects. Even mild side effects could get an antibiotic relegated to the dustbin. By and large, antibiotics just “worked,” so employing a wide and varied arsenal was neither necessary nor financially lucrative. With antibiotic resistance reaching critical levels, microbiologists are going back to the well and tweaking the older, more toxic antibiotics to be safer for us and worse for bacteria.

There’s another advantage to going back to older antibiotics: sometimes it’s been so long the resistance has disappeared. After all, maintaining resistance to specific antibiotics requires constant exposure to the antibiotic. If the antibiotic’s no longer in use, resistance to it no longer provides a fitness advantage and resistance—at least in theory—can wane. The flipside of generations lasting a day or two is that non-essential traits get quickly weeded out.

Going WAY back.

Researchers have unearthed ancient medical texts to trawl for herbal remedies that actually work. And, guess what: some appear to be especially effective against medication-resistant infectious microbes.

Christina Lee is an Anglo-Saxon linguistics expert at the University of Nottingham. During the course of translating and searching an Old English medical textbook from the ninth century called Bald’s Leechbook for potential antimicrobial remedies, one entry in particular intrigued her. It read “the best of leechdoms” (in ninth century England, leeches were doctors and leechdoms were medical interventions and remedies; we call blood-sucking parasites leeches because the original leeches used them for phlebotomy) and called for a specific, complicated nine day-long preparation.

Garlic and leeks or onions were to be crushed, steeped in wine, mixed with ox bile, and stored in brass pots for nine days and nine nights. The result was a salve used to cure styes, an eye infection that we now know to be caused by staphylococcus. Lee enlisted the help of Dr. Freya Harrison, a microbiologist at the U of Nottingham, to determine if the millenia-old folk remedy really worked. They parsed the texts, hashed out the finer details (they added copper pennies instead of using a brass pot), followed the directions, waited nine days and nine nights, and tested it on some staphylococcus in simulated wounds.

It worked. The salve eliminated almost 100% of the staph. Several other trials confirmed the results. But that was regular old staphylococcus. For the next step, Harrison and Lee sent a sample of the salve to a colleague at an American university who had access to the good stuff: medication-resistant staphylococcus. The colleague was stunned, calling the results “astonishing”; the salve killed over 90% of the MRSA, even when it was protected by a sticky, mostly-impervious biofilm designed to resist antimicrobials. As to why it works, the mode of action hasn’t been identified. There are probably several different modes of action, since ox bile, garlic, wine, copper, and onions (or leeks) all have antimicrobial activity on their own.

Another group of scientists out of Sweden have amassed an impressive swathe of research into the antimicrobial potential of honey and honey bee bacteria. In one, they took isolates of infected wounds from human subjects and applied a combination of heather honey and 13 different types of lactobacillus bacteria found in honeybee guts. Thanks to the antimicrobial metabolites produced by the bacteria and the innate healing factor of the honey, the wound isolates healed faster. They also used the honey/bacteria salve to cure treatment-resistant infected wounds in horses.

They’re close to market with Honey Hunter’s Elixir, an old-style mead fermented using all 13 bee bacterial strains and the wild yeasts naturally found in raw honey that they claim “can actually be transferred to your blood and help you when you are infected with dangerous bacteria or promote health, preventing infections.”

So, folks: the world’s not ending. Science is a powerful tool, particularly when it expands its gaze to encompass the wider world and heeds, investigates, and analyzes past knowledge and traditions. And that’s exactly the direction microbiology appears to be heading.

What are your thoughts on antibiotic resistance and what it means for the world? Are there any other glimmers of hope you’ve seen or read about? If you’ve got news that dashes my sense of optimism into pieces, I’ll take that, too.

Thanks for reading, all.

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23 thoughts on “Antibiotic Resistance: Are We All Doomed?”

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  1. Wow, this is so timely! I am very under the weather right now and have some air travel coming up. I know if I go to the doctor they will prescribe a z pack, whether I need it or not. Instead, I am forcing myself to rest a bit, asking for some help where needed, and letting my body do what it was designed to do…heal itself. I’m doing everything I can to support it, and I know that in a few days I’ll be back to my old self, without messing with all my good bacteria!

  2. Little known fact about GMO crops…in the biotech labs where they are developed, they insert antibiotic resistance genes into the new plant so that they can weed out un-cloned plants quickly. Only plants that display antibiotics resistance are selected for as this means they have the other traits desired.

    Lots of debate in the biotech world whether this is safe or not, most scientists say “not” but big Agra says “safe.” The USDA and FDA are clueless.

    Google: “Antibiotic resistance markers in GMO production.” You’ll see.

  3. I’m hoping that CW will begin to understand that prevention is better than cure and realise the potential for the human body to naturally fight off many infections by having a sound gut biome and a functioning immune system by eating and moving in a species appropriate manner.

  4. I’ve had success using colloidal silver–orally and topically. The new versions don’t have the side effect of turning you blue if you use too much. Silver works for bacteria, viruses and fungi.

  5. I want to stop my Armour thyroid and take Lugols. Can’t find a PCP to help me.

  6. Great article Mark, a very important and scary topic, I like your tone of optimism.

    Structured silver is a very powerful supplement for killing unwanted microorganisms as Laurie posted, and some studies indicate if taken with antibiotics the combination is 10 times more effective than antibiotics alone.

    Also, certain essential oils are reported to be powerful cures for bacterial and viral infections. They need to be VERY pure and manufactured in an express way that 95% of them out there are not, and you need to carefully research the exact kind and dosage (literally a few drops).

    A high allicin time-released garlic supplement and structured silver are my go to natural approaches for potential infections, flu prevention etc.

    I also try to take care of my gut biome. I’ll offer this unsolicited testimonial lol, I cycle in Primal Flora as part of that routine along with a couple of other brands to get a lot of different strains including HSO varieties.

    1. You took the words right out of my mouth. Many different essential oils have had good results against even resistant bacteria.

  7. Thanks to the rapid generational turnover of micobial life, using traditional remedies would eventually run into the same problem.

    1. … Unless we (large portion of the planet’s humans) change the way we feed ourselves (no sugar, less starch, etc.) and majorly lessen our susceptibility to bacterial infections in the first place…

  8. Anybody recall going to an old-school barber shop where the tools were kept in a cabinet with a strong purple light? Give everybody strong UV blocking sunglasses and a “beanie” with an omni-directional UV/purple light. Will kill bacteria, but you’d probably need a good sunscreen for exposed skin as well. Could lead to shunning of people lacking their own UV shield.

    (Only slightly tongue-in-cheek.)

  9. Personally, I think the only thing that will save the planet will be a weird virus that knocks out 80% of the humans, which are a virus themselves on this planet…and I’m an optimist!

  10. Phytochemicals like carvacrol (oregano) and thymol (thyme) allicin (garlic,etc.) have demonstrated antimicrobial propeties. So make your bone broth with plenty of garlic and fresh thyme and eat it with a silver spoon. Nature’s antibiotics are still pretty effective.

  11. Interesting stuff! There is renewed interest in natural antimicrobials such as rosemary or sage extracts for food preservation. I am hoping that this could overflow into the soap industry, and replace the evil anti-microbial soaps that go right into our groundwater.
    Liquid anti-microbial soaps are formulated to stay powerfully active in water, and wreak havoc for a long time. In contrast, the antibiotics that most people blame for the development of resistant bacteria, are instead formulated to break down in water-based systems (like our bodies) within a day or so. The damage they do is much less.
    I am also hoping that an understanding of healthy skin’s need for its own biome will lead to an end of anti-microbial soaps entirely…

  12. The honey thing really works. it’s sticky but raw honey applied to infected skin does work miracles.

    1. So true about the honey! Of course, it has to be raw. I had a nasty run in with a juicer (not mine…I like to chew my food) The tip of my middle finger literally looked like ground meat. I almost fainted at the sight of it, but covered it in raw honey and gauze. Repeated twice a day. Looked decent in a week but finger tip slightly numb. Within two weeks felt fine but fresh skin looked a little different. To look at it now, a year later, you would never know it happened. But I know if I had seen a doctor, I would have been prescribed an antibiotic.

  13. Hey Mark,

    Good article. Definitely a scary topic as a clinician that sees people eating antibiotic-laden meat and trying to get them to make the switch.

    Now that we know us who do not eat antibiotic meat are still capable of getting exposed due to airborne transmission, we have to keep this in our consciousness.

    I have some fear, admittedly, but I believe with herbal antibiotics and some of the natural medicine strategies that we have, combined with western medicine, we should be able to outsmart this thing until we eventually and hopefully remove antibiotics from the world food supply.

  14. Very interesting article indeed, thanks Mark!

    Does anyone have any insight as to the various Bee Pollen and beneficial bacterium? I tried a few brands like the refrigerated pollen! When taking this and feeling a little ill, it seemed to help normalize intestinal flora as well as providing lots of good non fatiguing energy. I wonder if the Sweedish Studies are doing any research to this? I also enjoyed reading about the Silver supplementation albeit it’s not the Nitrate kind!

  15. I am currently trying a kanuka honey preparation on my rosacea. It has been recently released after successful phase III trials. Fingers crossed, nothing else has worked in the last 40+ years.