Since the creation of the first antibiotic in 1928 by Alexander Fleming, there has been a continual race against resistance. Antibiotics are chemicals that can affect the components of a bacterium cell without affecting the cells of the host (the person or animal). Some antibiotics degrade the cell wall of the bacteria in question. Others may have an effect on the cell membrane.
Resistance on the other hand can happen very naturally. Bacteria can transfer genetic material between two cells via a pilus. This is a form of sexual reproduction known as conjugation. During this process of sharing genetic material there may be information which can be used to resist any antibiotics that may enter into their environment. Bacteria can also take up (naked) DNA from their environment. This DNA may come from recently deceased (lysed) bacteria. Whether by transformation or by the more popular conformation, bacteria have very efficient and effective ways of developing resistance.
Once a bacteria becomes resistant to a specific antibiotic, the demand arises for a newer, stronger antibiotic becomes more apparent. However, doesn’t this just perpetuate the problem? Are there ways to circumvent this process and come at this battle from another angle?
One suggestion is that we decrease the misuse of the antibiotics that are currently working. One of the ways that antibiotic resistance is sped up is by doctors overprescribing antibiotics for conditions that do not merit them. For example, many patients that enter a doctor’s office for flu-like symptoms that result in an influenza diagnosis are then prescribed antibiotics. The antibiotics are in fact useless against influenza because it is a virus. There are also cases in which antibiotics are prescribed for longer than necessary as a precaution to ensure that all of the bad bacteria are gone and killing the good bacteria in consequence. However, these suggested precautions are actually doing more harm than good.
Another suggestion is the lobbying for reduced antibiotic usage in livestock. The argument is that the overuse of antibiotics in livestock produces antibiotic resistant bacteria in the meat we ingest. Through this we gain more antibiotic bacteria within our own bodies. These bacteria then fall in love (☺) and share genetic material with other bacteria, both good and bad, and we have an even bigger problem. On the other hand, sending sick animals to slaughter isn’t a good thing either.
Unfortunately, we aren’t going to solve the problem of antibiotic resistance directly. Maybe it is time for a more indirect method: vaccines. Vaccines work by introducing a modified version of the infectious agent into the body and allowing the body to develop immunity to the modified version as well as the actual infectious agent. For bacterial agents, the vaccine may be introducing a specific protein that is common within the bacteria in question. For viral agents, the body may be introduced to a dead virus or an attenuated (slower) version of the virus. Either way, the body senses the ‘invasion,’ attacks it, develops immunity, and is set up to defend the body against any similar ones.
Could an increase of vaccine development be the solution? The facts are that vaccines prevent infections. Less infections mean less antibiotic prescriptions. For the bacterial agents that have vaccinations such as tuberculosis, diphtheria, and pertussis, there are no reported cases of antibiotic resistant strains due to the fact that these organisms are very difficult to contract in cases of vaccinated patients. Also, a flu vaccination that helps prevent flu infections can prevent the unnecessary and inappropriate prescribing of antibiotics. Other viral vaccinations like the influenza vaccine could be a great asset to this continuous race against antibiotic resistance. As a result, medical development can officially lead the race!