Penicillin – and What Comes Next

We’ve heard about the super-killer bacteria, the ones resistant to penicillin and all the derivatives. Nasty, nasty, little guys. But consider: those super-baceria are as dangerous as every damn infection anyone ever got one hundred years ago.

I mentioned once to friends that if I were to travel back in time to live in an earlier age, the thing I would miss most is dentistry. One of those assembled brought up antibiotics. To our generation the very idea of an infection is far less malign than what our great-grandparents knew. We worry about cancer today because we don’t die of starvation or infection first.

But now antibiotics are becoming ever-less effective. We just overdid it, and the nasty little guys still standing just give penicillin the finger. Are we foolishly squandering one of the greatest tools we’ve ever developed to improve the human condition? Absolutely. Antibiotics have to number among the seminal achievements of technology.

But check this out: There are viruses that attack specific bacteria. For instance, there’s a virus that attacks tuberculosis. Seriously! Now, that virus may not be gnarly enough to completely wipe out TB in a human, but that seems like a pretty promising start to a new way to fight infection. It also strikes me as poetic to fight germs by getting them sick.

Yeah, the fact that we can now imagine a world with home build-your-own-virus kits can be a little worrying. Let’s just make sure we’re afraid for the right reasons. Often when you hear about genetic engineering, hand-wringers focus on the possibility that a created life-form that was supposed to be benign mutates into something evil that destroys the world. I’m not saying it can’t happen, mind, but it’s far more likely that a virus that’s already dangerous to humans — flu or chicken pox or even the common cold — will make that leap than some organism who just hasn’t been practicing at hurting people very long. The viruses already inside us would require a much, much, muchmuchmuch smaller mutation to get to wipe-out-humanity status, and they have a way to make a living even if they don’t get the whole mutation in one jump.

No, the reasons to be afraid are twofold: One, bad people will have the technology to make a lot of people sick. They will start with flu and do it right. Two (and this is my own personal hand-wringing unsupported by any actual research), the therapy might work too well. Every once in a while humanity wipes out a pest only to discover it filled an important niche in the local ecosystem. Kill all the mosquitoes and suddenly beetles are eating your crops. (I have a very vague recollection of a chain of events somewhat like that, but don’t go quoting me here.) We could wipe out some bacterium only to discover that it had an important role in the world that we never guessed at.

But you know what? I’m pretty stoked about this. It will be a long time before the our buddies the bacteriophages are cheap enough to change the world health outlook, but a long time isn’t as long as it used to be.

Here’s an article that talks about other applications of custom viruses, and revives my hope of getting out of brushing my teeth.

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One thought on “Penicillin – and What Comes Next

  1. my understanding, (but I’m not positive, so don’t take to bank), is that among all the viagras and hair growth drugs, nobody has any new antibiotics in the pipeline. And the pipeline is looong. So face-eating, nuclear-death bacteria might be with us for a while before MegaPharma gets done perfecting nexgen antibiotics (or bacteriophages).

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