Antibiotic-resistant bacteria are a truly monolithic problem of the coming century. If something isn’t done soon, the world could be pushed back into the pre-antibiotic era, where once easily treated diseases are no longer curable.
A new piece of research from UCLA argues that a solution may have been found to hold the storm at bay. Writing in the Nature partner journal Systems Biology and Application, the team of biologists describes how they discovered that thousands of antibiotics combinations, a cocktail of four or five different drugs, remain effective at killing harmful bacteria.
Using mathematical equations and computer models, the researchers toyed around with eight different antibiotics and tested how every possible four- and five-drug combination of varying dosages worked against E. coli bacteria. Out of the four-drug combinations, 1,676 combinations performed better than they expected. Among the five-drug combinations, it was 6,443 combinations. That means they found over 8,000 different new antibiotic combinations are surprisingly effective.
"I was blown away by how many effective combinations there are as we increased the number of drugs," senior author Van Savage, UCLA professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and of biomathematics, said in a statement.
"Some drugs attack the cell walls, others attack the DNA inside," Savage added. "It's like attacking a castle or fortress. Combining different methods of attacking may be more effective than just a single approach."
On the other hand, 2,331 four-drug combinations and 5,199 five-drug combinations were less effective than they anticipated.
"A whole can be much more, or much less, than the sum of its parts, as we often see with a baseball or basketball team," study author Pamela Yeh, UCLA assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, explained. Obviously a basketball fan, Yeh went on to compare this to the victory of the Detroit Pistons in the 2004 NBA championship. Despite having a with no outstanding superstars, they defeated the LA Lakers, a team with big names like Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal, Karl Malone, and Gary Payton.
All of this challenges the current theory that three or more antibiotics would have very little benefit in tackling drug-resistant bacteria.
"There is a tradition of using just one drug, maybe two," Yeh added. "We're offering an alternative that looks very promising. We shouldn't limit ourselves to just single drugs or two-drug combinations in our medical toolbox. We expect several of these combinations, or more, will work much better than existing antibiotics."
Of course, this is not going to be the end of the "superbug" problem at hand. President of the American Council on Science and Health, Hank Campbell, explained in a blog post that he was skeptical of the study's grand interpretations, noting that the research is unlikely to have any real-world influence due to the copious world of drug development. As he points out, computer models don't always translate into reality.