Scientists Find New Ways to Resist Resistance

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When scientists discovered penicillin’s antibacterial properties in the early 20th century, medicine was transformed. But just a few years after people began using this drug, penicillin-resistant bacteria started to appear. Today, antibiotic resistance remains a public health challenge, making it increasingly hard to treat tuberculosis, pneumonia, and many other infections. Scientists continue to struggle to develop a fail-safe plan, but in 2005, basic researchers made progress on two fronts.

First, using a hardy microorganism isolated from the Dead Sea, Thomas Steitz, Ph.D., and Peter Moore, Ph.D., both of Yale University, determined the protein structures of drug-resistant and drug-sensitive bacterial ribosomes physically attached to different antibiotics. This strategy is revealing because many antibiotics kill bacteria by binding to the RNA components of their protein-making ribosomes. The new structures show why a single genetic change prevents many antibiotics from tightly gripping onto ribosomes and explains why these versions can only weakly block bacterial protein production. Researchers at a biotechnology start-up company that Steitz and Moore helped to establish are using this structural information to develop new antibiotics.

In the other study, Marcus W. Feldman, Ph.D., of Stanford University in California investigated the role humans play in spreading antibiotic resistance. He created a simple mathematical model comparing people who tend to seek medical treatment with those who generally avoid taking medicines, including antibiotics. The model suggested that when people avoid antibiotics, resistance does not develop. But when people do take these drugs, resistant bacteria quickly gain footing and may even flourish as the antibiotic-sensitive bacteria die off. Feldman’s findings point to an important link between patterns of antibiotic use and the emergence of drug-resistant bacteria.

Although these studies were widely different in scope, they both suggest new research directions for battling the increasingly urgent problem of antibiotic resistance.