Drug-resistant superbugs beaten by ‘time machine’

Overuse of vital antibiotics has speeded up the evolution of drug-resistant bacteria. Picture: Getty
Overuse of vital antibiotics has speeded up the evolution of drug-resistant bacteria. Picture: Getty
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SCIENTISTS believe they have found a way of reversing bacterial resistance to antibiotics.

Looking at new ways to cut the risk of millions dying in a global pandemic triggered by drug-resistant superbugs, researchers have discovered a way to use antibiotics to rewind the evolution of bacteria – using “Time Machine” software.

Widespread misuse of antibiotics has led to curable diseases becoming increasingly lethal as bacteria adapt to resist medicines commonly prescribed by doctors.

A team from the University of California and the American University in Washington, DC found that, by combining different types of antibiotics in a ­regimented way using mathematical formulas, they were able to reverse resistance and kill bacteria.

Dr Miriam Barlow, an associate professor of biology at the University of California, said: “This work shows that there is still hope for antibiotics if we use them intelligently.”

Resistance to antibiotics is a natural part of the evolution of bacteria, and unavoidable given the many types of bacteria and the susceptibility of the human host.

To compensate for bacterial evolution, a doctor fighting infections in an intensive care unit may reduce, rotate or discontinue different antibiotics to get them to be effective in the short term.

The researchers said their work could have major implications for doctors attempting to keep patient infections at bay using “antibiotic cycling”, in which a handful of different ­antibiotics are used on a rotating basis.

Dr Barlow criticised some doctors for carrying out this ­cycling in a disordered way and said that their method was different as it provided strict rules that doctors could rely on to force bacteria into a pre-resistant state.

She said: “Doctors don’t take an ordered approach when they rotate antibiotics. The doctors would benefit from a system of rotation that is proven.

“Our goal was to find a precise, ordered schedule of antibiotics that doctors could rely on and know that in the end, resistance will be reversed, and an antibiotic will work.”

The researchers combined lab work with mathematics and computer technology by creating bacteria in a lab and then exposing them to 15 different antibiotics and measuring their growth rates

From there, they computed the probability of mutations to return the bacteria to its harmless state using the aptly named “Time Machine” software.

The researchers tested up to six antibiotics in rotation at a time to find the best combination to reverse the evolution of the drug-resistant bacteria.

Dr Kristina Crona, an assistant professor of mathematics at the American University, said their research, published in the journal Plos One, showed a more systematic approach was needed to combat bacteria.

She said: “This shows antibiotics cycling works. As a medical application, physicians can take a more strategic approach.

“Uncovering optimal plans in antibiotics cycling presents a mathematical challenge. Mathematicians will need to create algorithms that can deliver optimal plans for a greater amount of antibiotics and bacteria.”

Now researchers hope to test the treatment in a clinical setting, working with doctors to rotate antibiotics to maximise their efficacy. Dr Barlow added: “More research in this area and more research funding would make it possible to explore the options more comprehensively.”