Antibiotic resistance in bacteria is and will continue to be a major problem for the drug industry. One of the key ingredients to modern medicine is switching side, and may threaten more lives than it can save. Researchers, however, think that they can prevent antibiotic from destroying us.
Where there are people, chances are there is also a bottle or two of antibiotics somewhere within reach. Our reliant on these drugs doesn’t seem to end and will likely continue to be as it is until modern medicine progresses further.
So instead of casting away antibiotic as a curse and shelving them forever, scientists from the University of Gronigen are proposing that we change up the mechanics of how these drugs work.
The concept involves using light to activate and deactivate a certain antibiotic. Many drugs work like a puzzle piece in that if it fits a certain enzyme molecule in an organism it can potentially deactivate certain functions of that molecule. For instance, a chosen type of antibiotic may have the ability to inhibit a bacterium’s ability convert a sugar into energy.
In their proposal, the scientists suggest we equip antibiotic with an on/off switch, which is activated or deactivated by light. According to the researchers, they were able to demonstrate that they can carry out such a function using azobenzene, a light sensitive unit that consists of two benzene molecules joined by two nitrogen atoms linked by a double chemical bond. Heat and light can temporarily ‘loosen’ the bond between the nitrogen atoms, and thus allowing the unit to switch to its isomer—molecules with the same formula but different structures and properties.
To demonstrate their method, Gronigen scientist Ben Fergina and his colleagues stripped several types of antibacterial quinolone molecules of groups that are similar to aznobenzene and inserted the light sensitive switch in their place. The results were that they were able to manipulate the drugs’ activity using UV light, and essentially control when the drugs work and when they don’t.
One of the best uses for such a proposal is that treatment using antibiotic have the potential to be much more specific. Targeted delivery of a certain antibiotic to a specific area of infection is much more effective than swallowing a pill and hoping that the drug attacks the right target. For example, a switchable antibiotic can be activated in a person’s throat when light is shined upon that area, but elsewhere the drug is in its off state so that it doesn’t harm potentially ‘good’ bacteria. Moreover, reduced exposure of active antibiotic means we may be able to lessen the likelihood that a certain strain will develop resistance to the drug.
UV light isn’t an ideal light source as it can potentially harm the patients. Feringa concludes that a safer ‘switching’ mechanism is required if such a method is deployed on real people.