Scientists find promising antibiotic-resistant bacteria treatment — gold

Antibiotic-resistant bacteria is one of the most pressing public health crises of the coming decades, but an innovative new approach using gold atoms might hold the key to fighting back.
John Loeffler
Bacteria under a microscope
Bacteria under a microscope

libre de droit/iStock 

Antibiotic-resistant pathogens are on the rise, leading many public health officials like the World Health Organization to designate these tough-to-kill bacteria as a major public health crisis that is only expected to get worse.

In a new study to be presented later this month at the European Congress of Clinical Microbiology & Infectious Diseases, a group of researchers claims to have stumbled upon an unexpected tool to help turn things around: gold.

Gold isn't typically thought of in terms of medicine, but it's long been understood that there are some antibiotic properties to the element, even if we don't exactly know why it helps stave off or combat infections. Taking that as a starting point, researchers in Spain concocted a number of new compounds with a gold ion as its foundation, and have found that all 19 of the ones they tested were effective against at least one bacteria of concern that has proven resistant to modern antibiotics.

“All of the gold compounds were effective against at least one of the bacterial species studied and some displayed potent activity against several multidrug-resistant bacteria," Dr. Soto González, a co-author on the study, said in a statement announcing the research.

“It is particularly exciting to see that some of the gold complexes were effective against MRSA and multidrug-resistant A. baumannii, as there are two biggest causes of hospital-acquired infections." González added.

The bacteria studied by the researchers are among the most concerning pathogens in the world right now, given their capacity to cause incredible harm. Staphylococcus aureus, Staphylococcus epidermidis, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, Stenotrophomonas maltophilia, and Acinetobacter baumannii might not have the kind of high profile that something like Anthrax has, but in real world terms, these bacteria are responsible for far more deaths, so their growing antibiotic resistance is alarming. These new findings can't come at a better time.

How does gold stop an infection?

Gold atoms have some very exciting properties that we can enlist in our fight against germs. First, gold features several different ways of stopping bacteria in its tracks, which means that if one tactic or technique does not kill a germ, the odds are good that it has another mechanism that will kill the bacteria.

This can be anything from disrupting the integrity of bacteria membranes to attacking the bacteria's DNA or enzymes that a bacteria needs in order to survive.

Better still, gold is biologically inert for humans, so the safety of a gold-based medicine is likely to be very high.

How are bacteria evading our antibiotics?

We've been hearing about drug-resistant bacteria for a while now, and the reason for the rise in these dangerous pathogens is pretty straightforward. Natural selection is the mechanism nature uses to prompt life to adapt to its environment.

If you have genes that are better suited for an environment, you are more likely to prosper and reproduce, increasing the potency of the genetic marker that helped you survive in the first place. In the context of bacteria, we've been saturating the bacteriological kingdom with so many drugs that the small percentage that is naturally resistant to certain kinds of antibiotics are quickly coming to outnumber the bacteria that were susceptible to drugs. The bacteria susceptible to the drugs die, leaving no resistance to the survivors' DNA from becoming the dominant strain of bacteria.

Most antibiotics currently in existence are pretty old at this point, with many in use that have been around for decades. But as we use these life-saving medicines more and more, the bacteria we're trying to fight off get better at surviving a course of antibiotics while other, similar bacteria die. This process of distilling a trait in a single individual member of a population until it becomes the default trait for a species is how all life on Earth evolved.

The hearty survivors go on to reproduce at exponential rates, which increases the number of bacteria containing antibiotic-resistant genes and makes our medicines less effective — if they're effective at all.

Given the way diseases that would only a few decades ago have been fatal in almost all cases can now be treated with a week's worth of antibiotics like it were little more than a cold, getting a handle on bacteriological resistance to antibiotics is crucial, and this innovative new approach is definitely a reason for optimism.

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