Alligator blood, deep- sea sponges, 3D printers and even Angela Rippon’s hands could be the answer to an antibiotic apocalypse it’s feared could end up killing 10 million people a year.
This week it was revealed drug firms will get millions to develop antibiotics to fight superbugs.
And presenter Angela, 74, will investigate the crisis in the BBC documentary The Truth About Antibiotics. She says: “We’ve taken them for granted. We’ve been overusing antibiotics and the bacteria that cause infections are becoming resistant.”
Antibiotics have saved 100 million lives since doctors began dishing them out in the 1940s but over-use has led to stronger, more resistant bacteria.
Rippon consults Dr Adam Roberts on the show
The Truth About Antibiotics
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Already, 40% of E-coli – which can trigger the body into a deadly over-reaction to infection – are resistant to first-choice antibiotics. If no action is taken, resistance may become a bigger killer than cancer.
It could make day-to-day infections deadly and rule out life-saving surgery and transplants, as well as routine procedures such as caesareans and hip ops.
Antibiotics saved Angela’s life when she developed TB in 1949, at the age of five. And she could hold the key to fighting resistant superbugs in the palm of her hand, after a bacteria that kills MRSA was found on her skin.
On the show, Dr Adam Roberts, of the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, tells Angela: “We have found [organisms] that are able to kill MRSA from your hands… there is no reason it can’t be developed into a medicine.”
E.coli can cause infection in the intestine, which leads to dehydration and diarrhea
(Image: Ikon Images)
An exotic cure?
Hope could also found in alligator blood, of all things.
Angela visited Louisiana, USA, to meet Prof Mark Merchant, of the state’s McNeese University. He has been obsessed by
alligators since he was eight and saw one with three legs.
He was shocked it had survived losing a limb without succumbing to an infection and tells Angela: “There must be something amazing about their immune systems.”
The biochemistry professor visits the swamps at night, collecting blood samples, and recently struck gold. Angela
says: “He has now discovered two small proteins in the alligator blood that could become antibiotics, and a pharmaceutical company has picked up his work.”
Are new drugs coming soon?
Dr Sheuli Porkess, of the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry, says it takes eight to 12 years to create a new drug and costs hundreds of millions of pounds. She says: “For each
medicine you have to show that it works, it is safe and it can be made to the right quality.
“From the science through to the medicine you can give to a patient, it’s of the order of hundreds of millions of pounds.”
Antibiotics saved Angela’s life when she developed TB in 1949, at the age of five
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Are they really so important?
Angela knows from personal experience that antibiotics are vital. She says: “In 1949, TB was a killer. I had to be quarantined and I wasn’t allowed to see my parents for weeks on end.
“A quarter of those who contracted TB died. But I was very lucky because a couple of years before, a new drug – streptomycin – had been released. It was an antibiotic and it saved my life. But these same antibiotics that cured me are now failing.”
Or could new tests be the key?
Dr Tina Joshi, of the University of Plymouth, has worked out how to use microwaves to isolate the DNA of bacteria with a chip on a device the size of a smartphone.
It will let doctors prescribe the exact antibiotic for the exact type of bacteria causing the infection within minutes.
Dr Tina says: “That’s the beauty of this. It’s going to be small and handheld, something like a smartphone. In a five-minute appointment the doctor can say, ‘I’m going to prescribe you this narrow-spectrum antibiotic that’s actually going to treat you’.”
A blood test which shows if patients have a bacterial infection is being trialled by the NHS at one surgery and has reduced antibiotic prescriptions by 1,000 a month. But the test is more expensive than the antibiotics.
A 10-year-old girl allegedly survived an alligator attack (generic photo)
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Or could new technology?
In Bristol, Dr Paul Race is looking for new antibiotic bacteria in deep-sea sponges recovered from the Atlantic, and is using a 3D printer to create isolation chips which can grow up to 50 times more bacteria than a petri dish.
Angela says: “Paul has already found five new compounds that could lead to new antibiotics.”
Looking to the past
US scientists are working on 1950s research on viruses called phages, which kill bad bacteria.
Dr Ben Chan, from Yale University, says: “In a litre of seawater there are a billion phages.
“They were found before chemical antibiotics but when pen- icillin came along it was easy to administer and so we went in that direction.”
The Truth About Antibiotics is on Wednesday, BBC1, 8pm.
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