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Eat Your Heart Out Malthus
Antibiotics 1, Malthusians 0

Teixobactin is one of the most important words you will hear this week. That’s the name of the first new antibiotic to be discovered in 30 years, according to The Telegraph. What’s most exciting about the discovery, however, is not the drug itself, but the process that scientists at Northeastern University used to discover it. Prior to the Teixcobactin breakthrough, microbes, a potential source for all sorts of new antibiotics, didn’t grow well in labs. This limited scientists’ ability to create new antibiotics, but the researches behind Teixobactin have found a way, thus opening up whole new realms of discovery.

This finding is crucial because resistance to existing antibiotics is on the rise, a problem was—and perhaps still is—quite serious. The WHO called it a “major global threat.” Without the discovery of new drugs, the old ones would stop working, exposing us to major health risks that antibiotics eliminated. But as reasonable as the concerns about resistance were and are, they sometimes shaded into quasi-Malthusian pessimism. The new discovery seems to have changed the presumption of our inescapable defeat by drug-resistant bugs:

Professor Kim Lewis, Director of the Antimicrobial Discovery Centre said: “Apart from the immediate implementation, there is also I think a paradigm shift in our minds because we have been operating on the basis that resistance development is inevitable and that we have to focus on introducing drugs faster than resistance

“Teixobactin shows how we can adopt an alternative strategy and develop compounds to which bacteria are not resistant.”

This does not mean that the real problem of antibiotic resistance has been solved overnight, and we will have to wait to see how this drug and the process that created it are used in years to come. But if it turns out, as early signs suggest, that this innovation will reduce significantly the danger posed by bacteria, a common pattern will have once again repeated itself. As we have seen so often before, technological change has come along to give the lie to Malthus predictions, to show that humans can and do find ways to overcome the “inevitable.”

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  • Andrew Allison

    The reporting on this development overlooks the reason why drugs stop working: bacteria evolve quite rapidly to develop immunity. Thus, if-and-when the new drug actually comes to market it will simply be a palliative. As an aside, Malthusianism is the belief that population will grow faster than food production, something which it seems only to applie to bacteria and viruses [/grin].

    • S.C. Schwarz

      Apparently this antibiotic has a new mode of action which leads researchers to believe that it will be very difficult, if not impossible, for pathogens to develop resistance. I guess we’ll have to see what the pathogens think about that.

  • S.C. Schwarz

    Yes, the Mathusians are wrong again. Unfortunately the Malthusians are running the U.S. government so it doesn’t matter if they’re wrong.

  • FriendlyGoat

    This is good news, as we hear that the process this compound uses to attack bacteria is different enough that some think it might work for 30-50 years without being thwarted by mutation. As far as I know, we haven’t heard an estimate for cost. Given the 8,000% price increase we’ve seen in the last three years for Doxycycline Hyclate (a 1960’s era antibiotic), we will need to know whether Teixobactin has any hope for wide affordability.

  • Government Drone

    The new drug’s also going to have to run the gauntlet of safety testing, too, before any meaningful availability. No use having a good antibiotic that has side-effects similar to, for instance, Thalidomide.
    In short, potentially very, very good news for us — but not yet here.

    • f1b0nacc1

      Keep in mind that Thalidomide’s side effects were known at the time (one of the reasons why it was not approved for use in the US), and it was NOT supposed to be used by pregnant women. In point of fact the drug is still used for some specialized cases, and is considered a possible cancer therapy. The drug itself wasn’t the problem, it was the flawed scientific understanding (or rather the poor application of what was already known about it) that led to it being used on a completely unsuitable population.

      • Government Drone

        Hmmm… According to Wikipedia (I’ll take any corrections gladly, mind you) the reigning medical assumption of the time (mid-1950s) was that drugs could not pass across the placental barrier, & it was only tested on rodents. The drug was explicitly marketed as good for morning sickness & as safe for pregnant women in at least West Germany & the UK. No one “knew” of its side effects on fetuses till deformed children were being born. And the only reason it was never approved for use in the US was that the company seeking such approval would never provide results of clinical tests to the FDA.(

        At any rate, the larger significance of Thalidomide here is that we have a rather long, expensive, & tedious regime of safety & effectiveness testing required in the US before any large-scale use of any new drug — & that’s my main point; it’ll be a few years yet, at best, & if, in the meantime, we start encountering odd side-effects or drug-combination or allergic reactions in some people, the drug might be simply not approved for use, or in such narrow circumstances that large portions of the population will get no benefit from it.
        I honestly don’t want to get my hopes up too soon.

        • f1b0nacc1

          Wikipedia’s coverage is (as always) rather limited. In the US the reason that the FDA wanted the tests in the first place was that they were aware of the problems with proteins (not drugs) being passed across the barrier. This is one of the ways that (VERY) early insight in to FAS was obtained. As for the Europeans (it wasn’t just West German and the UK, Denmark and the rest of the Scandanavian states, as well as the Benelux countries), they were remarkably incurious, largely because ‘the science was settled’ (now where have I heard that before?), and thus didn’t bother to follow up on numerous early warnings.
          We are quibbling about details though. My point is that while you are certainly correct that we do far more (not necessarily better) testing now, that isn’t guaranteed to catch all the potential issues (Fen-Fen, for instance), and even in the basis for all this scrutiny in the first place necessarily makes the point that it was all a good idea. We certainly prevent 100s or even 1000s of negative reactions, but we also delay or prevent (through vastly inflated production costs) introduction of medicines that could save millions of lives.

  • LarryD

    I’ll point out the biggest reduction in infectious disease in the US occurred due to the development and widespread adoption of good hygiene practices. Not that antibiotics aren’t damm useful, literally lifesavers on occasion. But the declining instruction on hygiene in schools portends ill for future health trends.

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