For over a decade medics and bacteriologists have been issuing dire warnings that science is losing the race with ever evolving bugs. Antibiotics, over prescribed to humans and overused in animal husbandry, will lose their efficacy sooner rather than later.
The result, they warn, will be that simple surgical procedures will become a life or death lottery against infection. Untreatable sepsis will become commonplace and millions will die.

At Bohemianmojo we had our own brush with the Antibiotic Doomsday when I fell ill with Lyme Disease a couple of years ago. The standard treatment is a prolonged course of the antibiotic Doxycycline, which generally, but not always entirely, kills the Lyme pathogen off. I was sure I was suffering with Lyme as I could be, with extreme pain in all my joints, lethargy and lack of mental clarity. But the locum doctor at my regular surgery refused point blank to prescribe Doxy’.  “Not until you blood tests come back,” she insisted. 

My argument that I’d not taken any antibiotics for at least forty years, and was the subject least likely to break the back of antibiotic effectiveness, didn’t wash with her. “There are National Health Service protocols because of the overuse of antibiotics,’ she insisted. Not even when my first set of ‘bloods’ was lost in the system, and I had to wait another couple of weeks in severe pain, did she relent. 

Setting aside my personal grievance against what I saw as an overly cautious approach in my case it struck me that the authorities must be very worried indeed to institute such draconian guidelines over antibiotics. I’m also aware anecdotally that variants of my situation are happening all the time as medics crack down on antibiotic use.  It’s equally plain that without these infection-kicking drugs mankind is in a very tricky situation. So where do we go from here as the giant pharmaceutical corporations insist they are running out of options.

bdellovibrio bbcEnter Bdellovibrio bacteriovorus, a speed-record holding bacterium, armed with two hundred bug busting enzymes and a voracious appetite for others of its kind. Bdellovibrio is a long-tailed predator pathogen, with a Spitfire turn of speed, entirely disinterested in attacking human hosts but intent on noshing on other bacteria. It uses its enzyme chain-gun to break through the cell walls of other bugs and, once inside it feeds on their plasma, and reproduces before bursting out of the dead cell. To all intents and purposes then Bdellovibrio is a living antibiotic.  

What really grabs the attention is the nature of its prey. Experiments by scientists in the UK at Imperial College, London and Nottingham University tried it against the Shigella pathogen, a food bug that infects 160 million people every year; killing a million of them. 

Unleashed on the superbug Shigella in a laboratory dish the predatory Bdellovibrio caused the population to collapse by a factor of 4,000.

When small Zebra fish were infected with Shigella only 25% were able to survive past 72 hours but with Bdellovibrio introduced the survival rate soared to 65%. It’s been found to be equally effective against Salmonella and E. Coli as you can see in the video clip below.

Prof. Liz Sockett, who is leading the research, described another big payoff from Bdellovibrio, on the BBC’s The Life Scientific. She said the actions of Bdellivibrio in reducing the number of the pathogen stimulated the white cells of the immune system of the fish to join in.

“They finished off the last of the Shigella and then finished off the Bdellovibrio. The Bdellovibrio and the pathogen were both gone and the fish survived.”

Prof. Sockett believes Bdellovibrio could be most effective in combatting infection at the site of wound as it can be easily injected into the area.

It’s relatively early days in this research; even though Liz Sockett has devoted fifteen years of her life to the work. Who knows where it will take us but it is a very exciting field and full of hope in the dismal world of shrinking antibiotic efficacy. Here at Mojo we sense a Nobel Prize in the air.

For those of you with a thirst for some tech detail on the research here’s a link to a scholarly paper in Nature Communications:

The Antibiotic Alternatives Rev-up Bacterial Arms Race

This video by the BBSRC provides a fascinating glimpse of a Bdellovibrio attack:


Photo credit: BBC