Antibiotic resistance is a serious and growing phenomenon and has become one of the biggest public health concerns of the 21st century according to the World Health Organisation.
It occurs when bacteria mutate so that antibiotics no longer work in people who need them to treat infections. Every year, antibiotic resistance kills an estimated 25,000 people in Europe.
Of all places, hospitals are a prolific source of drug-resistant strains of bacteria. It is an environment where pathogens are continually exposed to a variety of drugs and is home to patients with weakened defences, making them more susceptible to illness.
“Bacteria are actually intelligent organisms, because they can find a way to protect themselves against these antibiotics,” said Professor Herman Goossens, a microbiologist at the University of Antwerp.
At the University of Antwerp, researchers are trying to understand this phenomenon and find ways of combating it.
In order to resist an antibiotic, a bacteria has several options. It can change its appearance: the drug, designed to recognise a specific port of entry, will fail to find it and turn away.
Others will simply close up the entry ports that allow antibiotics into the cell.
A third scenario involves bacteria that manufacture pumping mechanisms that push the antibiotic back outside so it never reaches its target.
And some mutations enable the bacteria to produce potent enzymes that simply make antibiotics inactive.
It is hoped that better understanding these resistances will help find new, efficient drugs.
Recently, researchers made a major discovery in the fight against one of the biggest public health threats: multidrug-resistant tuberculosis.
The germs that spark this highly contagious airborne disease have mutated over time and, in some cases, are highly drug-resistant.
But one Belgian laboratory has developed a substance it hopes will help in the fight against TB.
Heading the research, Doctor Jérôme Guillemont and Professor Koen Andries have tested thousands of chemical substances repeatedly. After years of tests, their hard work was paid off with the discovery of bedaquiline.
“[Bedaquiline] is a very special antibiotic in the sense that it is the first antibiotic ever described to interfere with the energy generation in bacteria. So it cuts off the energy, which makes them stop growing immediately. They sort of freeze and after a couple of days they die,” explained Professor Andries.
And there is more: TB pathogens seem to develop very little resistance to this new drug.
Other such antibiotic drugs are currently being tested, like lactivicin, which a team led by Professor Moreno Galleni is working on at Liège University.
“Lactivicin is a compound produced by fungi. It was discovered in the 1980s. It plays an important antibacterial role, but the problem, at the time, was that it was toxic for humans,” said Professor Galleni.
But researchers have now managed to eliminate this toxicity. The molecule tested in Liege inhibits penicillin-binding proteins, preventing the bacteria from surviving.
Fresh from these success stories, researchers are now continuing in their relentless work to develop similar novel antibiotics, in the global fight against drug-resistant bacteria.