Friday, May 2, 2014

Get ready - Here they come!

First lets get a couple of things straight - 70% ( more or less ) of the bacteria living in and on our bodies are harmless and many of them are beneficial.   It is estimated that 500 to 1,000 species of bacteria live in the human gut.     Bacterial cells are much smaller than human cells, and there are at least ten times as many bacteria as human cells in the body.   The mass of microorganisms are estimated to account for 1-3% of your total body mass. (Wikipedia ) Some varieties in your intestines produce needed vitamins. 

Bacteria are really super simply cells - they have very few cell parts - not even a nucleus - their reproduction process is much simpler than other cells.  ...and in this blog we are only talking about bacteria - not other kids of disease causes like virus, prions, and fungus...

But the bad ones are really bad - and the cause of serious diseases and infections.  Through much of history getting a simple cut could turn fatal. Getting 'sick' was mysterious, dangerous, and the doctors had few tricks to deal with them.

Generalized diagram of bacteria

Then in the 20th century along came antibiotics. Antibiotics are made up of secretions produced by living microorganism  (usually bacteria or fungus) that blocks the growth of other microorganisms. There are also antibiotics originally produced by living cells, that are then modified chemically to change the disease fighting properties of the drug.  There are also diseases fighting compounds made completely synthetically in a laboratorysuch as the sulfa drugs. 
One of the original antibiotics produced was developed from extracts collected from the mold that grows on citrus fruit or bread mold.  (Even in medieval times some herbalists treated wounds with a poultice of moldy bread – but they had no idea why it worked).

Comparison of sizes - E coli are a rather large bacteria common in the digestive tract

When first developed, these chemicals were considered miracle drugs – wounds, many bacterial illnesses could be treated with a high change of success.  It seemed that the age of death from infection had come to an end.  There were some limitations – Antibiotics work only against bacterial infections – they are useless with fungus or virus diseases.   If you get a cold the doctor tells you to get plenty of rest, drink lots of fluids… and perhaps treat the symptoms with aspirin..but not antibiotics!

There are 3 basic shapes for bacteria - long "hot dog shape" like this are called bacilli - the color is due to an artificial dye

The problem is that living things are capable of adapting to most any change we can imagine.  Imagine that out of 10 million bacterial cells an antibiotic is effective – but one bacterium undergoes a natural change in its genetic code.  This mutation can occur due to a random cosmic ray, radiation from the early, heat, chemicals…but it happens and the bacterium survives and divides.  This is true evolution by natural selection happening within a small time period of weeks. The offspring from that bacterium are resistant to the antibiotic – and can divide and produce a resistant population that can be shared with other people.  There are other antibiotics available and being developed.  Sometimes higher doses are more effective on blocking mutations… But always the bacteria are undergoing a normal small rate of mutations – and some of them block the effectiveness of the antibiotic.  Today many of our old standby antibiotics have lost their effectiveness.

Second shape - are little balls called 'cocci'

This is especially a problem if the doctor gives the patient 20 days of antibiotic treatment and the patient stops after 15 days, because he start to feel better.   If he had finished the full treatment the mutant bacteria had a higher chance of being destroyed.  As it is the mutants survived and could be passed on.

In many third world countries antibiotics are sold in sidewalk kiosks – much as we buy aspirin… You get a cold – go buy a few doses of penicillin.  Get venereal disease – take enough drugs to make the symptoms go away – then stop… The result is that every time a patient takes the drug, the overall effectiveness that drug is being reduced for later medical application

The third type are not so common - Spirochetes - the bacteria of human syphilis and the bacteria found in the termite gut

Giving massive amounts of antibiotics to farm animals to keep them alive until they can be sold as meat compounds the problem.  Many bacteria cross species lines – so wide spread use in animals increased the number of resistant mutant forms of bacteria in the world population, and reduces the effectiveness of that antibiotic

This week a report by the WHO (world health organization) stated that the world wide we are losing their power to fight infections.  New effective antibiotics cannot be developed faster than old reliable antibiotics are being lost to normal evolutionary changes through mutation.

Antibiotic resistance is a major threat to public health, says the WHO. It is no longer something to worry about in the future, but is happening now and could affect anybody, anywhere, of whatever age. 

There are  complex visual tests and dye tests to determine the type of bacteria
This is another bacillus with a different dye

Biologists have known about this problem for years - I taught it in my Biology class years ago - but this is the first time that the prestigious WHO has come out with so strong and definite a statement.
This is a world wide problem – not one country – what happens in any country to develop resistant disease organisms will ultimately affect us all The WHO says “No single country even with the best possible policies in place can address this issue alone. We need all countries to get together and discuss and put in practice possible solutions."

Some bacteria have many flagella that beat rhythmically or randomly to produce rather random movement

The WHO said “There have been no new classes of antibiotics for 25 years”.  Research is expensive and not financially feasible for industries alone… government funding is also not adequate to do this work.   WHO: "New antibiotics coming on to the market are not really new," he said. "They are variations of those we already have." That means that bacteria are likely to develop resistance to them that much sooner.
Bacillus with extra long flagella

So how can we implement a serious worldwide effort to diminish the use of antibiotics?

1.Doctors need to be sparing with them and use them only when absolutely necessary.  Patients must understand that antibiotics have no effect on virus diseases and minimize the overall effectiveness of the drug every time they are used…. Don't ask for it!
2.  A worldwide education problem, similar to the AIDS education program in the 1980s must be implemented.  When drugs are available on the street – average people have to get the word too.
3. Buy organic meat clearly labeled with a “no antibiotic” label.
4.  Simple washes your hands after contact with possible sources of bacteria.
5.  Support Federal funding of research to develop new antibiotics… Its possible but its expensive.
6.  Educate yourself on issues of bacterial mutation, evolution, and resistance to antibiotic chemicals