By Norbert Herzog and David Niesel

Antibiotic resistance occurs when strains of bacteria that infect people — such as staph, tuberculosis, and gonorrhea — do not respond to antibiotic treatments. In America, 2 million people become infected with resistant bacteria every year and at least 23,000 die each year because of those infections. If nothing is done to stop or slow the resistance of bacteria to antibiotics, the World Health Organization warns that we will find ourselves in a post-antibiotic world, in which minor injuries and common infections will be life-threatening once again.

The crisis arose primarily from three conditions. First, when people are given a weeks’ worth of antibiotics and stop taking them as soon as symptoms improve, they often expose the bacteria causing their infection to the medicine without killing it. This allows the bacteria to quickly mutate to further avoid the effects of the antibiotic. Second, antibiotics are overprescribed. Most common illnesses like the cold, flu, sore throat, bronchitis, and ear infection are caused by viruses, not bacteria, so antibiotics are essentially useless against them. Yet they are prescribed 60-70 percent of the time for these infections. This once again provides bacteria in the body unnecessary contact with antibiotics. Third, tons of antibiotics are used every year in the agriculture industry. They are fed to livestock on a regular basis with feed to promote growth and theoretically for good health. But animals are also prone to bacterial infections, and now, to antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which spreads to humans who eat their meat or who eat crops that have been fertilized by the livestock. The good news is that the Food and Drug Administration is working to focus antibiotic use on bacterial infections and regulate its use in livestock.

An easy solution to this problem might be to create new antibiotics, but it’s not that simple. It takes an average of 12 years and millions of dollars to research new antibiotics and make them available on the market, which is a huge investment considering they are normally only taken for up to 10 days. But there’s an even bigger challenge: microbiologists can only cultivate about 1 percent of all bacteria in the lab, including specimens that live in and on the human body. The ability to grow diverse bacteria is important because most antibiotics actually come from bacteria, produced as a defense against other microbes.

Slava Epstein, a professor of microbial ecology at Northeastern University, came up with an ingenious approach to solving this problem. He speculated that we are unable to grow these bacteria in the lab because we were not providing the essential nutrients they needed to grow. Working with soil bacteria, which are a huge source for developing antibiotics, he created the iChip. The iChip allows bacteria to grow directly in soil, which is their natural environment, while being monitored.

To date, about 24 potential antimicrobials have been identified from 50,000 bacteria that remain unable to grow in the lab. With possibly billions of bacteria left to grow and examine, the number of new drugs awaiting discovery is seemingly endless.

Professors Norbert Herzog and David Niesel are biomedical scientists at the University of Texas Medical Branch. Learn more at medicaldiscoverynews.com.