They looked in the dirt and found a cure – Includes radio interview

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A newly discovered soil bacterium, Eleftheria terrae, is able to make teixobactin, a new antibiotic that can kill a range of disease-causing bacteria. Credit: William Fowle/Northeastern University
A newly discovered soil bacterium, Eleftheria terrae, is able to make teixobactin, a new antibiotic that can kill a range of disease-causing bacteria. Credit: William Fowle/Northeastern University

As we all know, pathogens are developing resistance to antibiotics faster than pharmaceutical companies can bring stronger ones to market. We’re running out of antibiotic treatments for killer diseases like T.B., strep pneumonia and MRSA.

Fortunately, and in the nick of time, a team of scientists led by Kim Lewis, director of the Antimicrobial Discovery Center at Northeastern University at Boston, and NovoBiotic Pharmaceuticals, a startup company in Cambridge, Massachusetts have ‘dug up’ a whole new world of antibiotics.

In the radio interview below, Lewis says it became obvious to him and his collaborator, Slava Epstein, that “tinkering with growth media in our petri dishes” was the wrong approach, because it simply hasn’t worked for so many bacteria.

“Instead of trying to figure out the ideal conditions for each and every one of the millions of organisms out there in the environment, to allow them to grow in the lab, we simply grow them in their natural environment where they already have the conditions they need for growth,” he says.

They “came up with a simple gadget” called an iChip that is a kind of diffusion chamber in which a soil sample is sandwiched between two semi-permeable membranes glued onto an ‘O’ ring. The contraption then goes back into the soil.

“Now everything diffuses through that chamber and bacteria get their nutrients and growth factors from the natural environment — and they grow. Essentially we trick them; they don’t know that something happened to them,” Lewis explains.

Once a colony is formed, there is a high probability that the microbe will become domesticated and grow in the lab. Lewis and his team grew 10,000 different microbes this way and found one that was exceptional. He called it teixobactin, and it could be effective for scores of years because it destroys pathogens by causing their cell walls to break down. Most antibiotics target bacteria’s proteins and genes, which can allow the bacteria to mutate and develop resistance to the attack.

Radio Interview – Click To Play