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Finding a cure where you least expect it: in a bear’s mouth

ByEve Miller

Sep 25, 2018

Sticking your arm into a bear’s mouth may not be an NHS approved treatment for an infection, but a recent study from the Russian Academy of Sciences suggests otherwise. New technology has been successful in its search for antibiotics in brown bear saliva. So perhaps the risk of a bear chowing down on your arm might just be worth it.

Animal mouths are a microbiome containing hundreds of species of bacteria. The microbiome of each organism is completely unique and very dependent on the animal’s environment. Researchers hope that by looking at the microorganisms in animals’ mouths from isolated environments, they may find new species or strains of bacteria which produce undiscovered antibiotics.

Researchers collected a saliva sample from a wild Siberian brown bear. Bacteria from the saliva were then inserted into an oil droplet along with a sample of Staphylococcus aureus.

The new technology can analyse 30,000 of these droplets a second, selecting those in which the growth of S. aureus was inhibited. Using the sample from just one bear they were able to identify 3 different antibiotics, none of which had been identified in the saliva using the traditional petri dish method.

All of these were known antibiotics but the experiment does highlight the incredible power this technology has. It can be applied to any sample from an animal, soil, water or another source. “It is tedious to look for bacteria that produce antibiotics by testing them on Petri dishes,” says co-author of the study Konstantin Severinov, via Rutgers University, “this new technique is faster and more accurate allowing for a greater number of samples to be tested.”.

S. aureus commonly causes blood and skin infections in hospital patients as well as other serious conditions such as pneumonia. A particularly dangerous strain, MRSA, is becoming an increasingly large problem since it is resistant to most common antibiotics.

With over prescription and improper use of antibiotics on the rise we are reaching a point where some infections are impossible to treat using current drugs. An estimated two million people in the US have a multi-drug resistant infection each year, 23,000 of whom die. In the UK a 2017 study found that there were over 170 separate clusters of MRSA in the East of England alone. With it being so widespread and difficult to treat there is an overwhelming need to find a greater range of antibiotics.

The researchers hope their method will be the start of a new wave of antibiotic discovery. Although the technique is useful, it solves just a couple of the many issues facing antibiotic research.

For one thing, there is very little money in it. Large pharmaceutical companies can make billions off of diabetes or cancer drugs which have to be taken for a long period of time. Antibiotics, on the other hand, are usually only taken for a couple of weeks.

Clinical trials are another hurdle to overcome. An increased number of antibiotics discovered does not necessarily mean a greater number on the market. Plenty of naturally occurring antibiotics can damage human cells as well as bacterial ones.

The research is also reliant on accessing very isolated areas and exploiting its wildlife. The supplementary information for the paper states that “all donors provided written informed consent”; however, it seems unlikely that the brown bear was, in fact, a willing participant. If this research progresses, great care will need to be taken in order to ensure that the health of both the animals sampled and the ecosystems they are a part of are not threatened.

Whether or not this technique will find new life-saving drugs is yet to be determined. However, it is set to move our defences at least a few steps forward in the war against antibiotic resistance.


Image Credits: 422737 via Pixabay

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