Eight decades have passed since the discovery of penicillin and the development of its use as an antibiotic medicine.
Since then, doctors and scientists have used antibiotics to save millions of lives from diseases caused by bacterial infections like meningitis, pneumonia, syphilis and gonorrhea. The significant role antibiotics play in improving our health is undeniable.
According to the Journal of Pediatrics, oral antibiotics are the most frequently prescribed pediatric outpatient drugs.
The incredible healing power of antibiotics has led to their overuse. When doctors over-prescribe antibiotics or when patients do not finish their recommended dosage schedule, the surviving bacteria grow stronger and multiply in a dangerous form of natural selection. Researchers are forced to develop new, stronger strains of antibiotics to stay one step ahead of resistant strains.
According to a 2006 study by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, more than 70 percent of the bacteria that cause hospital-acquired infections are resistant to at least one of the antibiotics most commonly used to treat them.
We live in a germophobic world. The search for stronger antibiotics and the evolution of super-bacteria have been well-documented by the media. Companies have responded to our fears by marketing products that promise to protect us from microorganisms.
“Seven years ago, only a few dozen products containing antibacterial agents were being marketed for the home, and now more than 700 are available,” wrote Stuart Levy, Tufts University School of Medicine professor, in a 2000 paper for the Centers for Disease Control. “The public is being bombarded with ads for cleansers, soaps, toothbrushes, dishwashing detergents and hand lotions, all containing antibacterial agents.”
The problem is that antibacterial products were developed to prevent the transmission of disease-causing bugs in sick patients – not healthy people.
The products that make us feel safer have few, if any, proven health benefits to people who are not suffering bacterial infections. They do, however, select for even more resistant strains of bacteria and weaken our immune systems by overprotecting us from cells that help our immune systems grow and mature. A certain amount of bacteria is good for us.
Probiotics – live microorganisms like bacteria and yeasts touted for their beneficial health effects – increasingly are sold as dietary supplements. Even more exciting are the developments in biotherapeutics, which are genetically modified bacteria reprogrammed to help us instead of infect us.
The idea has led to remarkable advancements in medicine. An article by Jessica Sachs in the April 2007 edition of Popular Science outlined the most promising discoveries. Researchers in Amsterdam have modified a cheese-making bacterium, Lactococcus lactis-Thy12, to relieve Crohn’s disease, a disorder caused by the immune system mistakenly attacking the intestines’ normal complement of digestive microbes.
Doctors at the Mary Crowley Medical Research Center in Dallas injected a genetically modified breed of salmonella into cancer patients to shrink inoperable tumors. A biotech company called Oragenics has patented a cavity-preventing strain of the natural bacteria that exists in our mouths, Streptococcus mutans.
These breakthroughs are exciting, but researchers are encountering resistance from the Food and Drug Administration, the arm of the federal government that gives such studies the green light.
A mountain of red tape and plenty of federal review boards – often skeptical of “Frankenbugs” – await any scientist looking for approval of larger, more meaningful trials. It took Jeffrey Hillman, the founder of Oragenics and lead researcher behind the cavity-fighting bacteria, more than 10 years to secure approval for a study of his bacteria – a study that included only two people.
Engineered bacteria will be a revolution to our health care system. The risks involved merit caution and careful review by organizations like the FDA, but fear of the new and unknown is delaying valuable research that could one day save lives.
A fear of bacteria stands between the medicine of the 20th century and the medical advancements of the 21st. Someday we will embrace and depend on bacteria, the very organisms we worked so hard to eradicate from our environment.
Joe Vossen is a senior in political science. Please send comments to email@example.com.