Antibiotics just got a sneaky new ally in the fight against superbugs.

In September 2016, the United Nations made a special declaration pledging to fight the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, colloquially known as superbugs.

A lineup of baddies: E. coli in the center, flanked by its goons A. baumannii. Images from James Archer/CDC and David Dorward/NIAID.

About 2 million people catch one of these superbugs each year, and now there are even strains immune to nearly everything we can throw at them. A woman in Nevada recently died of a strain that resisted 26 different antibiotics.


“We’ve lost the ability to use many of our mainstream antibiotics,” said Oregon State University professor Bruce Geller. “Everything’s resistant to them now. That’s left us to try to develop new drugs to stay one step ahead of the bacteria."

But now Geller and a group of scientists have found an interesting twist. Instead of finding a new antibiotic, they found a way to make known medicines work again, thanks to a type of compound called PPMO.

If the fight against antibiotic resistance is a gritty war story, this new approach is like a spy novel.

Fighting against drug-resistant bacteria is an arms race. We make new weapons. They develop new shields against those weapons.

One defense that certain bacteria have is an enzyme known as NDM-1. It's good against a class of antibiotic known as carbapenems. Previously, what we could do to fight NDM-1 is either abandon carbapenems or try to add extra drugs to slow down NDM-1. But Geller's PPMO does something different.

Instead of going after NDM-1 itself, it attacks the messenger RNA that transmits NDM-1's blueprints. It kidnaps the messenger. No messenger means no NDM-1; no NDM-1 means our good-guy antibiotics are back in the fight.

Geller says it'll probably be about three years before human testing of PPMO.

Professor Geller. Image from Oregon State University.

So far, scientists have tested their work both on a petri dish and by giving sick mice the PPMO/antibiotic combo. It worked. They then even tried three different kinds of NDM-1 bacteria; it worked on all of them.

“It’s the same gene in different types of bacteria, so you only have to have one PPMO that’s effective for all of them," said Geller.

That said, creating new drugs is expensive and complicated. It's possible that this won't work for humans. The PPMO should be safe, since humans and other animals don't have NDM-1, but other things like side effects could come up. But even if it doesn't work, this approach opens up whole new avenues for research.

Through innovations like this, we can help push antibiotic resistance back and win the fight.

Simon & Garfunkel's song "Bridge Over Troubled Water" has been covered by more than 50 different musical artists, from Aretha Franklin to Elvis Presley to Willie Nelson. It's a timeless classic that taps into the universal struggle of feeling down and the comfort of having someone to lift us up. It's beloved for its soothing melody and cathartic lyrics, and after a year of pandemic challenges, it's perhaps more poignant now than ever.

A few years a go, American singer-songwriter Yebba Smith shared a solo a capella version of a part of "Bridge Over Troubled Water," in which she just casually sits and sings it on a bed. It's an impressive rendition on its own, highlighting Yebba's soulful, effortless voice.

But British singer Jacob Collier recently added his own layered harmony tracks to it, taking the performance to a whole other level.

Keep Reading Show less
Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
True

Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.

In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

When John Scully was born, America was in the midst of an epidemic: tens of thousands of children in the United States were falling ill with paralytic poliomyelitis — otherwise known as polio, a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leaves its victims partially or fully paralyzed.

"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.

"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.

Keep Reading Show less