There’s a war going on right now, and as multiple news outlets have jokingly pointed out, it’s happening right under your nose – or, more accurately, inside it. As revealed in a landmark Nature study, a display of near-nostril microbial combat has given researchers a key tool in the fight against antibiotic-resistant “superbugs”.
Two types of bacteria, among others, can exist within your nasal cavities. The first, Staphylococcus aureus, is found in the noses of about 30 percent of people. A battle-hardened, drug-resistant version of it is known as MRSA (methicillin-resistant S. aureus), and it is one of these so-called superbugs that are incredibly difficult to treat. Sometimes causing mild infections, they can also cause life-threatening conditions, including blood poisoning.
The second bacterium, S. lugdunensis, essentially just goes about its day without causing most people any health problems. However, a careful analysis of the 70 percent of people who don’t seem to have much S. aureus inside their noses showed that S. lugdunensis is there in considerable numbers, keeping the offending bacteria at bay, using its own antibiotic substances.
Nearly all antibiotics have been found in soil-based bacteria, so when the team from the University of Tubingen stumbled across this antibiotic-producing bacteria in our own bodies, they were stunned. Not only is this discovery somewhat revelatory by itself, but it raises the possibility of using it to treat superbugs like MRSA, which until now were on the ascendant in the war on antimicrobial resistance.
Tests on mice infected with lugdunin, the antibiotic itself, confirmed that not only does it stave off S. aureus and MRSA infections, but it also destroys several Enterococcus infections too. Bernhard Krismer, the coordinating researcher on the study and an expert on ecology of S. aureus with the nose, told BBC News that “some of the animals were completely clear, no single cell of the bacterium was detectable.”
Hold on! That snot of yours could contain life-saving antibiotics. wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock
Back in 2014, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared that antimicrobial resistance (AMR) had become a global health security threat. Various superbugs are simply evolving too rapidly and, largely thanks to the overuse of antibiotics in both medical facilities and in intensive livestock farming, can no longer be treated conventionally.
Non-antibiotic weaponry has been trailed recently, including techniques that use artificial, nanoscale structures that alter the chemical processes of bacteria using a quirk of quantum mechanics. Others have looked to genetic alteration of the bacteria themselves to weaken their outer shields. In any case, it’ll be a long time before any of these methods are available for clinical use.
Lugdunin changes everything, and marks the first real chance medical science has had in ages to make a meaningful breakthrough against AMR. Incredibly, we may be able to use more than just the antibiotic to combat drug-resistant bacteria – we could fight fire with fire.
“An interesting idea raised by this study is that we could use the bacteria themselves, those that naturally produce antibiotics, as treatment, instead of just the antibiotic itself. They would effectively be a probiotic for the nose,” Ben Libberton, a researcher in microbiology at the Karolinska Institute who was not involved in the study, told IFLScience.
Perhaps, of course, this isn’t the only antibiotic that has been hiding within our bodies. The hunt is now on for others, which could help to turn the tide in humanity’s favor.
Image in text: An electron microscopy image of S. aureus, which can become MRSA, a known and particularly dangerous superbug. CDC