It is a truism that the most important events are rarely recognized as such when they happen. While newspapers are full of reports that are mostly trivia, truly important developments are often overlooked entirely, or relegated to the back pages.
A case in point: The London Times headlines: “New antibiotic promises to win war against superbugs.” The discovery of antibiotics was one of the great milestones in human history, but in recent years the microbes have been winning the war, and few new antibiotics of much significance have been discovered.
In the laboratory they killed off a strain of gonorrhoea resistant to all other antibiotics. They were also effective against gram-negative bacteria, which have an outer layer that shrugs off most antibiotics. No new classes of gram-negative-killing drugs have come to the market in nearly three decades.
Antibiotic resistance has been recognised as one of the biggest threats to global health. Superbugs are estimated to kill at least 700,000 people each year and forecasts have suggested that that figure could reach ten million by 2050.
Kerwyn Huang, a professor of bioengineering at Stanford University who was not involved in this research, said that the discovery had the potential to revolutionise antibiotic development.
This new drug uses a broad-based mode of action different from that of existing antibiotics:
To gauge whether bacteria would become resistant to the compound millions of generations of microbes were exposed to it. Each generation had a chance to evolve resistance. During a marathon 25-day experiment, none did. It was also tested against bacterial species infamous for their antibiotic resistance, including Neisseria gonorrhoeae, which is on the top five list of urgent threats published by the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
If a new generation of antibiotics can successfully be brought to market, it will be a far more impactful story than the events that dominate today’s headlines.