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Beyond Antibiotics: Quirks and Quarks

A documentary report by Quirks & Quarks producer Jim Lebans about how researchers will cope with a world where antibiotics no longer work features Gerry Wright, Scientific Director of the Michael G. DeGroote Institute for Infectious Disease Research at McMaster University.

Are we approaching a post-Antibiotic era, when our most reliable medicines against disease causing bacteria become ineffective? And if so, what’s next?

We may be approaching – or we may already have entered – the post-antibiotic era.  Since the discovery of penicillin, we’ve been able to cure a wide range of infectious diseases – from gonorrhoea to tuberculosis to typhoid – that used to be disabling or fatal.  Antibiotics play a role in cancer treatment, in transplant medicine, and in keeping premature infants alive. But we’ve been in an arms race with bacteria, as they have evolved resistance to our drugs.  We’ve stayed ahead of them by introducing new medicines, but the pharmaceutical cupboard is nearly bare. Quirks & Quarks producer Jim Lebans has been looking into how we got to this place, and some of the solutions that scientists are investigating to try to find new antibiotics, to rehabilitate our old ones, and to find entirely new ways of dealing with infectious disease.

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Dr. Gerry Wright, Professor in the Michael DeGroote Institute for Disease Research at McMaster University in Hamilton is working on several strategies.  He’s looking for new antibiotics, but is also investigating ways to use antibiotic chemicals we haven’t used in the past – ones that are more specific to certain kinds of bacteria.  He’s also interested in exploring how microbes themselves deal with antibiotic resistance in nature.

Dr. Bob Hancock, Professor and Canada Research Chair in Microbiology at the University of British Columbia has been investigating “host-defence peptides,” which are chemicals that animals produce to fight infection. These are analogous to antibiotics, which are produced by microbes, but can have a wider range of activity, including stimulating the immune system and defeating antibiotic resistance.

Dr. Alan Davidson, Professor of Molecular Genetics and Biochemistry at the University of Toronto, works on bacteriophages or phages, which are viruses that infect bacteria.  Phages can be found that infect any kind of bacteria, and while there are concerns about using a living, reproducing organism to fight disease within our bodies, there is good evidence they may be used safely.  Dr. Davidson also thinks we might be able to use partial viruses that aren’t able to reproduce to fight bacteria.