Research Digest

Lab notes: Finding the Achilles heel of drug-resistant superbugs

New research may help develop a new class of antibiotic helper drugs.

Growing antibiotic resistance is threatening the efficacy of health systems around the world and estimates show that in 2050 antibiotic resistance will cause 10 million deaths every year. However, scientists may have now found the weak spot of at least one drug-resistant superbug. Researchers ay the University of Copenhagen and Ross University School have developed a way to make multi-drug resistant Klebsiella pneumoniae susceptible to antibiotics again. Klebsiella pneumoniae is a bacterium that causes fatal lung and bloodstream infections.

The research team used genomics technology to measure the contributions of every gene of the bacterium to antibiotic resistance and identified several genes help the pathogen survive even when exposed to antibiotics like colistin. They then demonstrated that inactivation of one of these genes called dedA made colistin-resistant Klebsiella pneumoniae completely sensitive to the antibiotic.

Similarly, they showed that inactivating similar genes in multi drug-resistant Escherichia coli, which can cause diarrhoea, urinary tract infections, severe anaemia and even kidney failure, restored susceptibility to beta-lactam antibiotics in the bacterium.

The research published in the journal Nature Scientific Reports opens up possibilities of using “helper” drugs along with antibiotics to overcome infections by drug-resistant superbugs. A class of drugs called β-lactamase inhibitors are, so far, the only such drugs currently in use. Increasing the efficacy of antibiotics with such helper drugs conceptualised by the new research could reduce the the chances of treatment failure and reduce doses of antibiotics with toxic side effects, the researchers said.

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Do you really need to use that plastic straw?

The hazards of single-use plastic items, and what to use instead.

In June 2018, a distressed whale in Thailand made headlines around the world. After an autopsy it’s cause of death was determined to be more than 80 plastic bags it had ingested. The pictures caused great concern and brought into focus the urgency of the fight against single-use plastic. This term refers to use-and-throw plastic products that are designed for one-time use, such as takeaway spoons and forks, polythene bags styrofoam cups etc. In its report on single-use plastics, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has described how single-use plastics have a far-reaching impact in the environment.

Dense quantity of plastic litter means sights such as the distressed whale in Thailand aren’t uncommon. Plastic products have been found in the airways and stomachs of hundreds of marine and land species. Plastic bags, especially, confuse turtles who mistake them for jellyfish - their food. They can even exacerbate health crises, such as a malarial outbreak, by clogging sewers and creating ideal conditions for vector-borne diseases to thrive. In 1988, poor drainage made worse by plastic clogging contributed to the devastating Bangladesh floods in which two-thirds of the country was submerged.

Plastic litter can, moreover, cause physiological harm. Burning plastic waste for cooking fuel and in open air pits releases harmful gases in the air, contributing to poor air quality especially in poorer countries where these practices are common. But plastic needn’t even be burned to cause physiological harm. The toxic chemical additives in the manufacturing process of plastics remain in animal tissue, which is then consumed by humans. These highly toxic and carcinogenic substances (benzene, styrene etc.) can cause damage to nervous systems, lungs and reproductive organs.

The European Commission recently released a list of top 10 single-use plastic items that it plans to ban in the near future. These items are ubiquitous as trash across the world’s beaches, even the pristine, seemingly untouched ones. Some of them, such as styrofoam cups, take up to a 1,000 years to photodegrade (the breakdown of substances by exposure to UV and infrared rays from sunlight), disintegrating into microplastics, another health hazard.

More than 60 countries have introduced levies and bans to discourage the use of single-use plastics. Morocco and Rwanda have emerged as inspiring success stories of such policies. Rwanda, in fact, is now among the cleanest countries on Earth. In India, Maharashtra became the 18th state to effect a ban on disposable plastic items in March 2018. Now India plans to replicate the decision on a national level, aiming to eliminate single-use plastics entirely by 2022. While government efforts are important to encourage industries to redesign their production methods, individuals too can take steps to minimise their consumption, and littering, of single-use plastics. Most of these actions are low on effort, but can cause a significant reduction in plastic waste in the environment, if the return of Olive Ridley turtles to a Mumbai beach are anything to go by.

To know more about the single-use plastics problem, visit Planet or Plastic portal, National Geographic’s multi-year effort to raise awareness about the global plastic trash crisis. From microplastics in cosmetics to haunting art on plastic pollution, Planet or Plastic is a comprehensive resource on the problem. You can take the pledge to reduce your use of single-use plastics, here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of National Geographic, and not by the Scroll editorial team.